Digitizing Sports Apparel: My Visit to the Tmall – Intersport Store in China (1 of 3)


Will “new retail” change sports apparel?

It turns out it’s a really interesting question.

Sports apparel retail is people buying running shoes, Nike gear, yoga pants, sweatshirts and so on. At first glance it looks like pretty standard apparel retail. Requiring lots of stores, good inventory management and effective marketing. So that certainly presents lots of opportunities for digitizing operations. But nothing terribly sexy.

But sports retail is also closely tied to sports entertainment.

And this is where much of the branding and marketing activity happens. There is a reason why Adidas advertises on everything from weekly NBA games to the Olympics. And that’s interesting because entertainment is something digital can really be a game changer in. 

Sports apparel is also tied with activities.

While it is just fashion for most customers, many customers are running, playing basketball, going to the gym and such. There is a natural tie between the products and activities. Sports apparel stores in China will often have well-known runners working as sales people.

And finally, there is a community and social networking aspect to this business. There are local running clubs. There are online discussion forums. People share updates of their marathon run in real-time. There are lots of local sports teams.

The more I think about sports apparel the more I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics – and where digital can be particularly powerful.


A few years ago, visit a new Intersport and Tmall retail store in Beijing. It was a prototype store that was attempting to digitize and re-imagine sports apparel retail. These articles are what I learned from my visit.

Ok. First some background on sports in China.

Sports in China Has Been Slowly Evolving From Health and Fashion to Actual Exercise.

Over the past 10 years, every big consumer survey in China (McKinsey, Mintel) has shown an increasing focus on healthier living. It is one of the biggest trends that cuts across virtually all of China. And “healthier” means eating better and being more active. It also means an increased interest in sports and exercise. So there is a big, broad consumer tailwind in this area.

At the same time, there has been several top-down government pushes to develop the domestic sports industry. For example, in 2014, the State Council issued a statement that sports should be a 1 trillion RMB industry by 2025. This resulted in a stampede into sports and its related infrastructure. Note: anytime a big government objective in China enables real estate and infrastructure spending, things happen really fast. We have seeing a ton of basketball courts and soccer pitches getting built.

And then around 2016, sports apparel started to become really popular with Chinese consumers. It was kind of sudden. Billboards went up all over China, usually with sweaty and attractive models boxing or running. It became a real fashion fad for about 1-2 years. On the subways, I used to count how many people in my car were wearing sneakers and/or sweatpants. It was typically 50% sneakers and 20-30% sweat pants.

This fashion fad led to big growth in the retail stores of Adidas and Nike. Everyone talks about Starbucks and Walmart but it was Adidas that surged to 9,000 stores in Greater China in 2018. It was during this period that my favorite advertisement for consumer China came out. I just love his ad by Nike (YouTube video here).

So that was a really great situation for sports in China. Lots of bottoms up consumer enthusiasm. Plus some big top-down government support. That’s ideal.

But there was a problem.

Chinese consumers weren’t actually exercising.

Despite all the fashion and watching of sports online (China is the NBA’s #2 market), there were actually very few gyms in China back then. There wasn’t a lot of participation or exercise happening. And “healthy eating” didn’t actually mean eating less salt and fat – and losing weight. It actually meant eating safe food (i.e., foods that won’t make you or your family sick). Chinese consumers often regard McDonalds and KFC as healthy food for this reason.

This situation finally started to change around 2017- 2018. Marathon running took off first. It became a big deal very quickly. There were suddenly +1,100 running races in China and more than five million runners. Gym memberships also began to grow rapidly. Although this is not quite what it seems. McKinsey & Co retail guru (and all-around cool guy) Daniel Zipser had fascinating data on how gym memberships in China tend to track social media usage. Going to the gym actually has a lot to do with posting photos of yourself at the gym (note: tourism has a similar phenomenon).

But sports had finally become a big thing in China. It went from a focus on health to fashion and finally to actual activities.

Intersport Enters China Late

Intersport is a Switzerland-based sports apparel retailer with approximately 5,300 stores in 42 countries (mostly in Europe). They sell sports apparel and equipment for men, women and children. And they also carry pretty great stuff for running, training, boxing, fitness, basketball and so on.  They carry most of the major brands, including Nike and Adidas.

They entered China around this time. And this raises an interesting question:

  • How do you enter the China market late? Nike, Adidas, Inta, Lining and others had been in China for 20 years. Intersport was way late. That’s a great strategy question.

And to their credit, Intersport did something original. They partnered with Tmall-Alibaba to re-imagine sports apparel retail and to (maybe) leapfrog the sports retail experience forward. That’s a good strategy. They leaned into digital tools and tried to create a new business model. And they partnered with Alibaba to do it. That’s all smart.

Their first initiative was the launch of a flagship “new retail” store in Beijing. In Part 2, I’ll detail my visit to this store.

That’s it for Part 1. Part 2 is here.

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.

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.

My book series Moats and Marathons is one-of-a-kind framework for building and measuring competitive advantages in digital businesses.

Note: This content (articles, podcasts, website info) is not investment advice. The information and opinions from me and any guests may be incorrect. The numbers and information may be wrong. The views expressed may no longer be relevant or accurate. Investing is risky. Do your own research.


Comments are closed.