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The art of the possible: Puma's push for personalisation at New York flagship

With its relative underdog status in the market, Puma is going beyond simply bringing a big presence with its NYC flagship store, using every trick in the book to win new brand advocates through carefully curated, brand-related experiences.

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The art of the possible: Puma's push for personalisation at New York flagship

The craft market concept is a timelessly popular one. The promise of unique, ever-changing wares keeps people coming back, regardless of era and technology.

It’s therefore surprising that customisation and dynamic product line-ups aren’t brought together more often than they are, but until it’s the rule rather than the exception, Puma has made it its mission to get a foothold on the demand for unique products.

With its new flagship store on New York City’s prestigious Fifth Avenue, Puma is creating an unrivalled experience. The brand opened the doors to its first North American flagship store on August 29th, 2019, with a focus on “fully immersive experiences through tech-driven sports engagement zones, a customisation studio and digitally connected activations”.

It’s the culmination of Puma’s ever increasing power in what has always been an incredibly crowded market. With an all-time-high share price at the time of writing – up over 50% on the previous year at 69p – the German sports manufacturer is responding to consumer demand at every turn. While it’s a long way off having the power of historic rival Adidas, it’s making more of a name for itself than ever.

Puma’s international profile has been most recently bolstered by its top-level partnerships, specifically sports teams. It’s the current kit manufacturer for English champions Manchester City, as well as AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and Marseille – five top teams in five top leagues. What’s more, five-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton and his prodigious rival Max Verstappen are both brand ambassadors.

With its exciting flagship, Puma is combining its connections with internationally renowned stars with its products, delivering a tech-first, personalised experience in a place as popular with tourists as the rich and demanding local clientele that frequents other nearby retailers.

But it’s only the beginning of something much bigger for the store; the company sees its already-impressive assets as a mere starting point.


What is Puma’s flagship all about?

At its heart, Puma’s flagship store is designed to change, with technology and creativity powering it at every turn.

  • Puma will partner with “renowned artists and designers” to deliver its “PUMA x YOU” customization studio. Shoppers are able to customise and personalise footwear, clothing and accessories with “paints, dips, dyes, patchwork, embroidery, 3D-knitting, laser printing, pinning, material upcycling, and many other creative mediums”.
  • Every fortnight, a new artist residency begins. Kicking things off are collaborations with Sue Tsai, BWOOD, Maria Jahnkoy, Même. and Pintrill.
  • To reflect its F1 partnerships and “longstanding commitment to motorsports”, visitors can race in “professional-grade F1 racing simulators”, down the streets of New York City. The simulators are identical to those used for training by Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
  • For football enthusiasts, shoppers can test Puma boots on the in-store simulator that mimics the San Siro Stadium. While they’re taking shots, brand ambassadors Antoine Griezmann and Romelu Lukaku give coaching tips.
  • Targeting the domestic market, Puma also offers stadium seating and a large-screen NBA2K gaming experience in the store’s dedicated basketball zone.
  • The entire store is built around RFID, meaning Puma can maintain accurate, live stock levels, guaranteeing certainty for visitors. Making the most of the technology, Puma also uses it as an identifier to mitigate counterfeit returns and improve security.
  • Using this RFID technology is the iMirror by NOBAL, which allows customers to view products in alternate colours and styles, and act as a customer service point where shoppers can call for a member of staff, or even sign up to in-store events. Immediately, it sounds like an upgrade on similar technology offered at Zara’s Westfield store in Stratford, though how it works in practice is a different matter entirely.
  • Finally, regular events will take place to bolster the experiential element of the store, such as in-store music performances and fitness classes.

Immediately, the Puma flagship sounds like it ticks an incredible number of boxes for the modern consumer, but the future successes of the store – and by extension, the brand – lie in the simplicity of what it’s offering. Cutting-edge technology may support its aims, but the core offerings of customisation and interactivity are as future-proof as it comes.


A store that’s as creative as its visitors

With its approach to customisation, Puma is effectively giving its clothing a second lease of life at the point of sale. If a customer thinks they can improve on the base product – or there’s a minor feature they don’t like – they can change it. Tapping into the very human desire to be unique, there’s a very real chance that with certain product lines, two identical items will never leave the store.

Yet creativity isn’t always guaranteed; sometimes, people want the decision made for them, or they simply might not have the inspiration there and then to commit to a personalisation on their desired product. With visiting artist collaborations, people can take inspiration directly from well-known designers. If they don’t like their style, but the product is going to be in stock for another few weeks, it presents another reason to return to the store for a different expert’s input.

If anything, the only criticism you can make of Puma’s store is that the valuable choices aren’t quite manageable. If you pick up a jacket, only to be asked if you want it painted, dipped, dyed, patched, embroidered, 3D-knitted, laser-printed or pinned, where do you start?


Simple tech adoption for long-term gains

Immediately, the one thing that jumps out as fantastic is the use of RFID for numerous purposes. On one level, it helps provide alternative products for customers hopeful to explore the wider Puma range. On top of this, it accurately provides up-to-date stock levels and opens the gateway to complementary tech, which can offer alternate options.

Having this breadth of choice, certainty of stock and wealth of alternative or related products turns an initial shop into a longer, experiential visit. But in terms of future applications, it opens up a whole new level of technology, as identified by Francisco Melo of Avery Dennison, who told Essential Retail: “The technology also puts the company on a pathway to integrate future functionality, such as automated payments, as it learns more from consumer experiences throughout the store.”

It's something we agree with; not so long ago, we spoke of the benefits of tracking in-store journeys through RFID.

The easy adaptation of centrepieces

Even the big, expensive technical installations are adaptable – the outlay cost may have been extremely high, but the cost of year-to-year maintenance will be very low indeed.

The basketball zone, which is gaming-led, only needs new consoles and the latest titles to meet expectations – a matter of hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. The football area is supported by the ever-changing catalogue of Puma boots and footballs; grass doesn’t change. And If AC Milan decided to get its kits manufactured by Adidas, the same technology can move the action from the San Siro to Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.


Even the F1 cars are almost wholly software-led, and will be updated with schematics in the same way they will be in team testing areas around the world. If Lewis Hamilton retired or Max Verstappen moved to the World Rally Championship, Puma can just partner with a new star or a past master and deliver the same, thoroughly brand-led, experience.

And while these experiences may be seen as boring to those visiting the store on a regular basis, Fifth Avenue is still a hub for millions of tourists every year; the technology will always be new and exciting to someone.

Invest to impress

Puma knows it isn’t the market leader in its field by any stretch, but it still has the market capital and presence to make the biggest mark on what’s arguably the world’s biggest retail stage. With its relative underdog status, it’s going beyond simply bringing a big presence, using every trick in the book to win new brand advocates through carefully curated, Puma-related experiences.

It couldn’t come at a better time, either, because for all its charms, New York’s retail scene isn’t as fast-moving as it could be, especially with its flagships. Of course, tourists will always visit Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, the Disney Store and even the likes of M&Ms World on Times Square – but past the products themselves, these spaces literally haven’t changed in the last ten years.

While spaces such as these will always rely on out-of-towners to drum up consistent trade, these one-time customers aren’t saviours. Businesses like Puma know what tourists and locals want: something to return to – to look forward to – on a regular basis.


Augmented reality: Finally enriching the customer experience with more than simple gimmicks

With the right ecommerce platform, businesses have a real opportunity to enhance the customer journey with the clever adoption of augmented reality – and now’s the time to test it out.

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Augmented reality: Finally enriching the customer experience with more than simple gimmicks

There have been plenty of technologies that have stayed almost entirely unchanged since their inception, but have showcased various degrees of success. For every Bluetooth – which continues to connect devices wirelessly and with little fuss – there’s the Quick Response (QR) code, a barcode that still hasn’t quite caught on despite being around for 25 years.

Another technology that’s seen very much in the same way as the latter of these two is augmented reality (AR): the technology that superimposes a computer-generated layer over the top of a user's real-world view, effectively creating a composite of reality and imagery.

Historically, it’s been seen as more of a gimmick than anything else; despite regularly showing incredible potential – at least graphically speaking – it’s barely gone further than being a PR stunt, rarely (if ever) solving practical problems.

However, in the push to showcase technical mastery and uniqueness in the modern, digitally savvy marketplace, there are new and exciting examples of AR being used by ecommerce websites, developed to add genuine value to customers. While the core premise of AR has changed very little, its applications are more useful than ever before.

The lowdown on augmented reality

As a concept, augmented reality has been around in its most recognised form for around ten years. Despite high expectations, it’s yet to establish itself as a mainstream piece of technology – but that’s not to say it hasn’t been used to great effect on the big stage already.

The most commonly-viewed use of AR is found in televised sports: overlays are regularly placed over the field of play, such as first-down markers in American Football, or during post-match analysis in domestic football when reticles appear around players. However, these applications are prepared by others, and not the viewers themselves, creating a continued disconnect between users and virtual tech.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the best-known, most widely adopted use of AR came to mobile devices. Pokémon GO – a game that, three years on, shows no sign of dying out – was an almost inevitable step in Game Freak’s ubiquitous franchise, combining phones with AR technology to literally allow players to catch ‘em all. Real maps are overlaid with a Pokémon style; real-life buildings are turned into gyms; and real camera footage is used as the background to showdowns with the creatures themselves.


With such a boom in popularity for the game (topping one billion downloads worldwide), it was unsurprising that brands got excited about the transferable potential of AR for their own businesses. In the world of social media, Snapchat and Facebook introduced AR through its camera functionality to overlay responsive filters to change the way users look in real time. Soon after, another tech giant led the charge, enabling retailers to spin the technology to their advantage.

Apple’s core role in modern AR

AR’s recent popularity has jumped largely due to new functionality provided by Apple. While it initially launched with iOS 11, Apple really promoted it as part of the release of iOS 12 last September, unleashing AR on anyone running an iPhone 6 or above – and playing into its long-established reputation as a creative force.


With such a prominent push of the tech, online brands have taken this deployment as an excuse to explore new ways to connect with their customers, specifically in providing new ways for them to interact, discover and buy their products with AR. What’s more, some have really enhanced the online buying process, while also underlining the importance of having a forward-thinking, adaptive ecommerce web platform.

Corporate AR in practice

As is all too often the case, the rush to adopt new technologies is not taken as seriously as some as it should be. In fact, many ideas are gimmicky as soon as they’ve left the blocks.

One of these, rather ironically, is one that Apple itself touted in its iOS 12 release: IKEA Place. The app, which was the first of three to be promoted by the phone manufacturer, “lets you virtually place true-to-scale 3D models in your very own space”. In principle, it’s an absolutely incredible idea, but in reality its spacial awareness is just not quite there. A cursory glance at the reviews on the app’s page underlines that it’s fun but flawed.


Meanwhile, WatchShop’s app allows users to see how timepieces look on their wrists, which is fine for novelty, but with even mid-priced watches, users aren’t going to see a floating, digital, passable-resolution mock-up as the removal of the final barrier in their path to purchase. Watches are special things, and items that buyers overwhelmingly want to try on, study and appreciate in person.

Herein lies an issue: as we’ve discussed already, sports fans are given a much greater breadth of knowledge and game insight with clever, complementary AR. Pokémon GO allowed people to literally do the very thing the franchise is known for with the help of clever, complementary AR. Businesses using AR for these more gimmicky reasons still often fail to understand the very things their customers want or need from AR technology: clever, complementary AR.

By containing AR within bespoke apps and not naturally embedding it into an ecommerce website, it not only creates a further barrier to it being used in the first place, but on a cultural level, it emphasises the gimmicky nature of the idea: AR is communicated as being a superfluous service.

As we discussed last year, retail apps are – for 99% of businesses, at least – a fruitless and ultimately expensive escapade. Businesses cannot rely on apps any longer; they need a platform that can support AR, on the customer’s terms, as a complementary service as they look to purchase.

Luckily, there are great examples of retailers doing just that.


Cream of the crop

Ecommerce brands have been exploring how to offer those iPhone owners new ways to interact, discover, and buy their products with the help of AR. The service sits directly on their ecommerce websites at product level, for anyone with a modern iPhone running Safari.

The first example comes from Stork, which uses its site to allow parents to check the real-life size of their prams before buying them – an invaluable service if you need to check if it’ll fit in your car, given the AR allows you to see it in both its fully assembled and folded-up configurations.

Then there’s B&B Italia, which helps you check the size and style of a new sofa to see how it looks in your living room. It adopts a very similar ethic to IKEA Place but, while it may have the same teething problems as the Swedish giant’s app, this is on the website – no random app download is needed, removing another barrier to use and, of course, purchase.

Finally, Nomatic, a Kickstarter-funded start-up, proves that you don’t need years of retail experience to enhance it: on its site, you can explore the size and style of backpacks before buying to ensure they can carry everything you need, and look good to boot.

A long way to go yet – but it’s a start

Even with Apple’s inclusion of AR as standard, the technology is far from perfect and has its flaws, while its developers are still learning the true boundaries of their own imaginations. Nonetheless, it’s a major step in the right direction.

The challenge now is for retailers to put customer experience first and implement the technology to solve genuine consumer problems. Here at SHIFT, we prioritise our partners’ ability to integrate third-party solutions to meet these ever-evolving needs; it’s time that all retailers ensure their ecommerce platforms are as innovative as possible to meet these requirements, or at least test new ideas like these.

If you’re tempted to create your own AR experience, you can head to the Apple developer page on your phone and try out a range of objects for yourself. You never know, it may be the string your bow’s been looking for.