3 Lessons in Digitizing Sports Apparel from Intersport and Alibaba (2 of 3)


Several years ago, I got a message (via LinkedIn) from Robin Trebbe, who was at that time the Managing Director for China / Asia Pacific for Intersport International. They had a new project with Alibaba that was trying to digitize the sports apparel business. I jumped at the chance to do a visit. Note: I gave some background on sports in China in Part 1.


Peking University is in the northwest of Beijing. So pretty much every downtown meeting requires a 45 minute trip. It’s usually kind of annoying. But in this case, it was a trip to Tiananmen Square, which is a favorite place to go. I used to live right behind the palace and would walk along the canals, which are especially nice in the winter.

On the south end of Tiananmen Square there is a very impressive mixed-use commercial development. Very high end. This entire whole Qianmen (i.e., front gate) area was redeveloped and became a beautiful modernization of traditional Chinese architecture. Think lots of high-end boutiques, four star hotels, winding alleyways and coffee shops. If you want to see the nicest Starbucks anywhere, go the Starbucks Reserve in this Qianmen development. It will likely 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. It’s pretty impressive to get such a great location.

Over several hours, Robin gave me a tour of the store and we had a good chat about where new retail was going.

The Digitized 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. And if you have an account (Tmall, Intersport), then it can contact you. And it will probably offer you something that it is very personalized. An offers for products or discounts. The goal of the beacons is to connect with customers and to bring them into the store.

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

You’ll note I’m saying “in theory” a lot. All of these tools were pretty experimental. The functionalities and features were advancing quickly. And a lot of this didn’t work.

Entering the store, the first thing I noticed was there were screens everywhere. The store was full of clothes and screens. I assume there are cameras as well (computer vision in retail is a big thing).

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

My one exception to this is sports apparel, which I actually like. 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). The screen showed lots of information about the shoe I selected. And I could choose different colors and look up information. That ok. But there isn’t really that much information I want to know about a sneaker.

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

Ok. So far, it’s not that impressive. 

Then I went over to a magic mirror.

Lesson 1: Magic Mirrors Are Amazing for Discovery and Personalization

Tmall has been putting their magic mirrors in lots of retail situations. They are pretty fantastic for shopping and discovery. First, as you approach the mirror sees you (and sometimes can identify you personally), scans you, and then shows you see how you look in various clothes. Or in different types of 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. It’s pretty great. And the bigger the screen the better.

Note the below is not my body. The Magic Mirror just stuck my head on someone else.

This really does change the shopping experience. It’s a big upgrade. 

It’s also a natural way to search through the entire inventory of the business. Not just the racks of clothes the store. 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.

Why is this a big deal? Two reasons:

  • It dramatically increases the inventory you can search.
  • It personalizes the inventory to you. In the physical store, everyone sees the exact same clothes. But on the screen, it personalizes to me.

Lesson 2: The Bigger and More Interactive the Screen the Better

The Intersport store had one really large screen on the first floor. It also had 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. And in this case, that’s the inventory of the stores plus their Tmall inventory.

And once you select what you want, you can have it delivered. Or you can pick it up in the store. Or at another store. Or have it sent to a friend. It’s like shopping on your smartphone but your smartphone is the entire wall.

Why is this important?

Because it opens up all sorts of possibilities beyond searching the inventory. You can communicate with designers and fashion advisors. Just bring them on the screen like a Zoom call. They can create outfits for you. You can also bring manufacturers online who will make the clothes the design suggests. 

Once you digitize the experience, you can personalized (lesson 1). And you can connect with other services (lesson 2).

Lesson #3: More Screens, Games and Experiences

On the second floor, there was another big screen where you can play a basketball video game. And it takes your photo in basketball poses as you do. It then integrates them into a cool photo.

The goal of these in-store games it to get you to stop, sign-in and engage. First, 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.

But it is also about offering experiences beyond just retail shopping. And in sports, that is much easier to do.

Finally, Ordering, Check-out and Delivery Are What 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. This part was fine but pretty standard.


Ok. So that is what they had deployed when I visited. This was their first iteration of these tools. But I think it 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 apparel retail is one of the most interesting frontiers for new retail.

Thanks for reading. Cheers, jeff


Related articles:

From the Concept Library, concepts for this article are:

  • Retail
  • New Retail/OMO
  • China

From the Company Library, companies for this article are:

  • Intersport
  • Alibaba


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

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