How Intersport and Alibaba Are Digitizing Sports Apparel Retail in China (Pt 2 of 3)


There are a couple perks to having a decent-sized following as a writer (currently closing in on 3M followers).

  • You get to fly around the world a bit to give talks, which I love.
  • People tend to send swag and books. Always fun.
  • And every now and then, a company reaches out with an invitation to visit and talk to their executives. That is just about my favorite way to spend an afternoon. And trust me, after years writing in total obscurity, all of this is a big improvement.

I got just such a call (via LinkedIn) from Robin Trebbe, Managing Director for China / Asia Pacific for Intersport International. They had a new project with Alibaba and I jumped at the chance to do a visit. I gave some background on sports in China in Part 1.

But first…consider joining my executive education course Jeff’s Asia Tech Class for deeper insights into China’s tech leaders from on the ground in Asia. There is a 30-day free trial.


Peking University is in the northwest of Beijing. So pretty much every meeting requires a 45 minute trip downtown. Kinda annoying. But in this case, it was a trip to Tiananmen Square, which is always one my favorite places to go. Walking along the canals and around the back of the Forbidden City is amazing in the winter.

And on the south of Tiananment Square there is a new and very impressive mixed-use commercial development. The whole Qianmen area has been redeveloped and is a beautiful modernization of traditional Chinese architecture – with lots of high-end boutiques, hotels, and winding alleyways. And if you want to see the nicest Starbucks anywhere, go the new Starbucks Reserve in this Qianmen development. It will probably be filled with well-dressed Chinese millennials talking photos and filming short videos.

Just around the corner from this Starbucks (I remember most addresses in reference to Starbucks locations) is the new Intersport-Tmall store. So first off, congratulations to Robin and his team for getting such a great location. That’s impressive.

Over the next couple hours, Robin gave me a tour of the store and we had a good chat about where new retail was going. Thanks Robin. You’re awesome and it was a real pleasure.

The Tmall – Intersport Store in Beijing

Upon arrival, the first thing you notice is that the store knows you are coming. When you get within about 300 meters, your smartphone is in range of the store’s beacons. In theory, the store can send you offers for products and discounts. And if you have an account (Tmall, Intersport), then it can probably offer you something that it is very personalized. The goal of the beacons is to connect with customers and hopefully to bring them into the store.

As you approach the store, you see big screens on the outside. These make offers to those walking by. And there are video games you can play. In theory, these screen can identify you and offer you personalized coupons or games. Again, the goal is to get customers to stop and engage. Maybe to play a game. Or to redeem an offer and so on. Usually by scanning a QR code (i.e., registering) and / or coming inside to redeem an offer.

You’ll note I’m saying “in theory” a lot. All of these tools are in early stages of development and are just being deployed. The functionalities and features are probably going to look very different in a year.

Entering the store, the first thing I noticed was all the screens everywhere. I assume there are cameras as well (computer vision in retail is a huge thing).

Ok, a confession. I don’t like shopping for clothes. In fact, I get all my clothes shopping done in 15 minutes every six months. Yes, I actually time it. I have set sizes for my suits and such and I time it.

One exception to this is sports apparel. I like sneakers and sweats and such. So I headed right to the shoes section.

Picking up a shoe, it immediately showed up on the screen (sensors in the shoes). There was lots of information about the shoe I selected. And you can choose different colors and look up information. Interesting but there isn’t really that much information I want to know about a shoe.

However, at foot level, there was another mirror. Which, in theory, let’s you see what shoe looks like on you. That is pretty interesting. But it wasn’t working yet when I was there.

Magic mirrors are pretty amazing for discovery.

Tmall has been putting their magic mirrors in lots of retail situations. These strike me as a pretty major in shopping and discovery. First, the mirror can see you (and sometimes identify you personally), scan you, and then it lets you see how you look in various types of clothes. Or in make-up. And so on. And you can cycle through items in the inventory (both in-store and online) and put them on your image.

Note the below is not my body. It just stuck my head on someone else.

This really does change the shopping experience. And it is a natural way to search through the entire inventory (as opposed to looking in racks of clothes the store). I think that is a big deal for search and discovery. Plus you can also change various things like your waist and butt size. Note the below button for butt size.

A really big shopping screen?

The Intersport store had one really large screen that I didn’t really understand. It has a camera so it should be able to identify you (or you can sign in with your phone). And standing in front of the screen, you can basically access the entire inventory with a touchscreen. That’s the inventory of the store plus the Tmall inventory. And once you select what you want, you can have it delivered. Or pick it up in the store. Or in another store. Or sent to a friend. It’s like shopping on your smartphone but it’s the entire wall.

More screens and games.

On the second floor, there was a big screen where you can play a basketball video game. It basically just takes your photo in basketball poses and then integrates them into a cool photo. There was a similar “take your photo” game at the JD-Qumei store I visited (article here).

The goal of these in-store games it to get you to stop, sign-in and engage. It is about digitizing customers and tying you (mobile phone, facial recognition) to your Tmall-Intersport account. You can’t really do much in new retail until your customers are digitized. You see versions of these in-store games in most new retail situations.

Ordering, check-out and delivery as you would expect.

Obviously, you order everything on your phone. And you can pick it up at the store or have it delivered. Not a surprise. As Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang has said “on-demand delivery is the infrastructure of new retail’. And payment, of course, is mobile.


Ok. So that is what they had deployed when I visited. This was their first iteration of these tools. So just the early days. But I think it really gives you a sense of what is coming.

Overall, it’s pretty cool. In Part 3, I’ll give you my take-aways and why I think sports retail is one of the most interesting frontiers for new retail.

Thanks for reading. Cheers, jeff


I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.

I am the founder of TechMoat Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps retailers, brands, and technology companies exploit digital change to grow faster, innovate better and build digital moats. Get in touch here.

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