NEW YORK — New Yorkers are many things, but patient is not usually one of them. There were many bemused smiles and confused stares as customers tried to get inside Nike's new flagship on 5th Avenue and were turned away by an impressive-looking bouncer saying it wouldn't open until Thursday, but there were also hands thrown up in the air, frustration at pulling on a door handle that wouldn't open and even patches of anger as shoppers pointed fingers at the group of people collected inside on the ground floor of the store.
Those few hanging around inside the House of Innovation — Nike's most recent flagship — were store employees, Nike corporate employees and various members of the media. It's an impressive store in person, even when practically empty. There's a customization lab on one side just past the entrance and a massive structure (what Nike executives are calling a "beacon") stretching up through the entryway to the five floors above it.
Shots of Nike athletes and new products play on a loop from screens placed at all angles around the "beacon." But there's no music, really, nor even words — just sounds. It's jarring and distracting without the usual lull of top 40s playing in the background, but that's how it's supposed to be, according to Sean Madden, senior director of product for Nike Direct, who said it was about the "energy," "clash" and "noise" of New York City.
Although somewhat flashy, it does provide a memorable entrance to Nike's newest retail space — a store that's focused on customization, New York and making mobile convenient.
A call to create
"Nike Arena," the floor most customers enter on, doesn't actually have any product on it. There's a large customization area where consumers can make changes to a pair of shoes they liked — change the color of the laces, of a Swoosh, of the whole shoe — and some other artistic elements, like the aforementioned "beacon," but the majority of the product is still to come.
Aside from serving as an entryway, the bottom floor is also a hint that what's to come is not just a collection of the latest merchandise on hangers — it's an experience that is meant to be personalized, customized, walked through, examined and even played with, in some ways.
"Part of the goal of this experience is that we're bringing our stories to life on the world's biggest stage," Cathy Sparks, global vice president and general manager of Nike Direct stores, told Retail Dive in an interview in the women's section of the store. "Doing it the way that retail's always operated by bringing the best product, the best experiences to life, but what we've added to this location is the really strong integration of digital and physical and allowing them to take their shopping experience into their own hands."
While it sounds grandiose, Sparks' words might be an understatement, if anything. Nike's flagship lets shoppers do just about anything that comes to mind (especially with the app). Quick customizations on a pair of sneakers usually take 5-10 minutes, while larger projects — including a one-on-one meeting with a Nike employee to discuss the changes — generally take just 30 minutes to an hour, according to Madden.
There's also a floor dedicated to customizable apparel, which includes not just changing the color of certain garments, but also switching out materials and even combining two different pieces of clothing into something entirely new.
In addition to giving shoppers an avenue with which to create their own products, the flagship is also focused on showing customers where the brand has been. A display on the sneakers floor (which I was told, multiple times, holds over 300 different pairs of in-season shoes) shows foot scans, design sketches and prototypes of Lebron James' latest shoe with Nike, an attempt to tell customers a fuller story of the time and effort it takes to create certain products.
The retailer also plans to host footwear designers in the flagship to talk to customers about the shoes they've created, the designing process and what the features do for the shopper. That's not to mention a sneaker lounge on the Sneakerlab floor, which displays a series of Nike's recent sneaker releases in a mirrored room — a form of storytelling which Madden describes as an "invitation" for customers to join the sneaker community.
"We actually talk about the House of Innovation as, really, Nike experiences for the world," Sparks said of the difference between the retailer's new flagship and its popular store in SoHo. "It's where we're going to give the deepest dive into our product innovation and the stories behind the designs and we'll be focused on large, global sports moments and how they come to life in New York City."
The 'biggest invitation' to NikePlus
With a name like "House of Innovation" — which was already introduced through the launch of Nike's Shanghai flagship last month — it's no wonder the store is full of customization opportunities. But Nike's newest store is more than just flashy features. It's also a lesson in mobile technology that actually adds utility (and convenience) for the shopper.
QR codes on the bottom of mannequins let shoppers find out what products they're wearing without wandering around the floor, and also provide access to a "request try-on" feature, where shoppers can add those products (or whatever else they find) to a digital fitting room, at which point a Nike employee will find the size and color they specified, set up a fitting room and send a notification to the customer when they can head back to try everything on.
"Obviously we want to give consumers and members the tools to navigate the space on their own terms and we do know it'll be busy and there'll be moments of extremely high traffic so if our members want to understand exactly what sizes we have or even check out on their own, they now have the tools to do that," Sparks said.
If a customer uses their phone to request a certain size to try on in, say, the shoe department, an employee will bring that out to a "pick up" station on the floor, which is meant to allow shoppers to keep shopping. And when they're done shopping? Nike has an answer for that too. The retailer has set up Instant Checkout kiosks on every floor, complete with bags and a slot for hangers, to let customers check themselves out with the app if they don't feel like waiting in line.
It's not quite Amazon Go, but it's close.
All-in-all, the mobile features are focused on easing the customer's path to purchase. See something you like on a mannequin? Just scan it into the app. Want to try something on? The app can do that too. And it also comes into play for customers who saw something online but want to check it out in store before they buy. For those shoppers, the app allows them to pick up reserved items in a set of lockers by scanning their member pass.
That particular convenience play, also available at Nike by Melrose, the retailer's first Nike Live store, is aimed at New York's busiest shoppers, who have a floor called the "Speedshop" dedicated just to them and their local tastes. If that sounds familiar to the Nike Live concept, that's because it is. While Nike by Melrose opened before the brand's latest flagship, Sparks noted that it was actually the idea behind the Speedshop in New York that led Nike to create the smaller, more localized and intimate store in Los Angeles.
Although for right now the House of Innovation flagships are limited to just New York and Shanghai, Sparks said they plan to open one in Paris in December of 2019, and a new Nike Live store is in the works for Tokyo, though it hasn't been completed yet.
In both concepts, convenience and customization seem to be top priorities for the iconic sports brand, but collecting customer data is high on the list. And the members-based mobile app, which features so heavily throughout the store, is the retailer's best way of doing that.
"This building was designed with the app in mind. This wasn't a building that's been here for years and now we're overlaying mobile. It's in the DNA," Madden said, noting that because of that dynamic focus, entire floors can be updated to keep the flagship modern, unlike many of its neighbors on 5th Avenue which have remained static as they aged.
The hope is that NikePlus members will find whatever they're looking for at the flagship — whether it's a quick trip to grab a pair of running shorts from the Speedshop or a long sit-down talk with a Nike expert about how to train for a marathon (which members can schedule an appointment for with, you guessed it, the app) — and more importantly, that non-NikePlus members walk in, see the app in action and think: "Hey, maybe I should join."
"This is our biggest invitation to that program," Madden said.
And biggest, in this case, is six floors of big.