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NRF 2015: Retail inspiration from San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers' last NFL Super Bowl triumph was over 20 years ago in 1994, but the opening of its new technology-driven Levi's Stadium in 2014 has led many commentators to conclude that one of the sport's most decorated teams on the field is taking the lead in fan engagement off the pitch.

Among the technological features that have been rolled out at the venue – rarely seen at other sporting locations – include mobile ticketing services and accompanying kiosks where fans can scan their smartphones to enter the stadium.

A ten-year partnership with online company Yahoo! also helps provide in-stadium entertainment, with 49ers supporters able to interact with the photo and video sharing site Flickr, and Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football – with the opportunity of seeing their content broadcast on big screens. It is all underlined by a 40Gb per second bandwidth, which is expected to support the use of rich media by the 68,500-capacity crowd.

It is the Levi's Stadium mobile app, however, that is viewed as central to the organisation's customer engagement strategy. Those that download it have the chance to order food and drink to their seats, watch re-run videos of the major action and order 49ers merchandise with the touch of a button.

During the opening keynote panel debate at this week's National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show in New York City, 49ers president Paraag Marathe identified some of the benefits the tech-centric approach has brought to his organisation in recent months – and there were some common themes and challenges that retailers will recognise.

Reflecting on the launch of the mobile app, Marathe suggested that the "name of the game" in sports business is knowing the individual fans – and the new app has allowed the club to collect data on 127,000 supporters to date.

"The airline, hotel and casino industries have done such a good job at marketing to the individual," he told delegates at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center in New York.

"It's first important to note that people wanted to be known, and opted in. The more you gave us, the more you were able to engage. During the game 50% were using it for several minutes to an hour per game, so we were learning all sorts of things."

If retailers are looking to provide more experiential offerings to their customers in the battle to increase or maintain market share, Marathe's comments will have some resonance.

"It's not just about making money and selling tickets – it's about experience and making the experience more fun," he noted.

"In time, we're building more loyalty, which is building an affinity with the brand for the next five, ten, 20 years – not just selling season tickets."

Being named the Levi's Stadium and being sponsored by the fashion retail brand is clearly not the only link the venue has to the global retail industry. Retailers in the audience at NRF's show will have seen for themselves the potential of really getting to know their customers through intelligent use of new technology.

The 49ers president also acknowledged "there was no-one in a better position to do something different" in terms of sporting venue technology, due to the club's close proximity to the West Coast home of innovation, Silicon Valley.

Indeed, there have been a number of tech companies – many of whom also work in the retail sector – that have partnered with San Francisco 49ers to help the club achieve its goals off the field.

An official partnership with Intel sees 49ers work with tech providers to integrate Intel solutions and products for client, server, embedded, and security technologies inside the stadium. In addition, Intel has exclusive branding and naming rights to one of the most heavily used pedestrian areas of the venue, which is home to a fan experience zone where fans can connect and communicate using the latest products with Intel Inside.

Meanwhile business software and analytics provider SAP is also a founding partner at the Santa Clara-based stadium, which involves sponsorship of the team's training centre and use of the tech company's analytics and mobile solutions to help mine the data created by the fan touch points such as the 49ers' official website, Twitter and Facebook.

Pat Bakey, global general manager for retail at SAP, told Essential Retail"It's about the fan experience, and the reason the fan experience is important is its important to build a strong brand.

"When you take a look at a brand you measure value in multiple years – it's not about a single event. The San Francisco 49ers obviously have a very powerful brand in the NFL, but now it needs to be a powerful entertainment brand."

In a comment particularly pertinent to today's retail industry, Bakey added: "When thinking about Levi's Stadium, a key principle was how to create a stadium for the fans, not just to showcase a product [the sporting team] but to connect fans with that product.

"The fan experience at the stadium is all about when they are sitting in that seat how do they feel like they are personally connected to what is taking place in the field?"

Fans inside the stadium using the mobile app can define what they want to see, including instant replays from different camera angles. People can even use the app to check the queues in the toilets.

Bakey remarked: "It's moving from the jumbotron where they just made the small screens bigger. Now they are making the screens personal."

Sport arguably has an advantage over retail when it comes to personalising the customer experience because by its intrinsic nature, sporting fans already have loyalty to their local clubs or teams they connected with when they were young. Generally speaking, sports teams already have loyalty but need to put the systems in place to enhance the experience of already loyal supporters, but for retailers it is often the opposite situation.

Perhaps a key point for retailers to take away from 49ers president Marathe's comments is to keep things simple.

"Use technology to make it personal – there's something special about saying 'thanks for coming'," he said.

In a competitive market, retailers certainly need to show gratitude to the paying customer.

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Levi's Stadium