Nike’s House of Innovation 000 shows that big data does not equal loss of theatre

New York City – Amid ongoing retail turbulence that this year alone has seen legacy brands like Sears and Toys R Us close the majority of their locations, opening a splashy flagship store at a sought-after address can feel like an almost countercultural gesture. But Nike has just done it for the second time in two months.

The brand’s new on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is a five-storey paean to frictionless commerce. It’s also, by virtue of its numbering, a prequel of sorts to the equally ambitious in Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road district, which launched in October.

What can a store still offer today’s omni-spoiled, multi-screening consumer? ‘The pleasure of physically being somewhere’, to quote a certain newspaper of record, a place that transcends the internet to be ‘bigger, grander and in every way more exhilarating and more energizing than anything the customer could experience at home’. That’s The New York Times reviewing Niketown, the brand’s previous New York City flagship, in 1997 – in a language strikingly similar to what we hear from many retail gurus today. Two decades later, can physical stores still break new ground in the post-Amazon era, or is this déjà vu all over again?

Few can answer that question better than John Hoke, Nike’s chief design officer and the man responsible for both the original Niketown and the new House of Innovation. That means he’s built a New York flagship for the same iconic brand in the pre- and post-internet eras. ‘It’s interesting to revisit reimagining retail,’ he says, explaining the thinking behind Nike’s latest creation.

Every brand seems to want stores to be ‘immersive’ now. Does that idea guide you as a designer?
JOHN HOKE: My sense of immersion today and tomorrow is about doing a couple of things well. You have to stir the emotions, and I think you do that by captivating and engaging all the senses. I like to say that one of the things we do really well is to design for goose bumps. What I mean by that is when you come across something that literally raises the hair on your neck, captures your emotion and makes your body say pay attention.

For us, the new House of Innovation store is a tour de force in terms of what Nike design can bring to consumers. Every discipline of Nike design is showcased: our innovation agenda, product design, footwear, apparel, equipment, multimedia design, architecture, branding, sound and lighting design.

We know data can’t dream, and that’s where designers come in

What’s one example of a ‘goose bumps’ moment at the House of Innovation?
The façade itself is very dynamic. Fifth Avenue is a kind of concrete canyon – you’re confronted with lots of stone. Both metaphorically and creatively, we aimed for transparency in the brand and the setting. We had this idea: how can you activate a glass façade for those who are walking, driving or running down the street? So we used slumped glass shaped into sine and cosine waves, and on top of that we etched a faceted cut. As the waves come together, the result is a very interesting moiré effect as you pass, making the building electric and sort of vibrating. The façade is our window into the House of Innovation, as we peel back the curtain and showcase the best we have.

Speaking to the notion of transparency, I note that consumers seem to be more knowledgeable than ever about the design of their favourite products. How does the store engage with their curiosity?
What we’re seeing is that today’s consumers are interested in the idea of co-creating with us. On the fifth floor we have the Nike Expert Studio, which is a platform for our brand to become more intimate with our customers. It feels to me, and it will feel to consumers, like you’ve just dropped into the Nike design floor in Beaverton, Oregon. You’ll have materials and designers and markers and computers – everything you need to become fully immersed in the act of creation.

When we work with elite athletes, we bring them to our campus in Beaverton. We work with them, put them through rigorous testing and training, and get to know their athletic ambitions and abilities like no other. That’s a pretty remarkable experience, which we want to offer everyday people in a one-to-one moment, aesthetically. At the Expert Studio, customers can co-create with Nike experts through an analysis of their running gait, for instance, or advice on how they might improve their performance on the basketball court. The discussion might even involve how they’d design a piece of apparel.

The Nike Expert Studio feels like you’ve just dropped into the Nike design floor in Beaverton, Oregon

We’re living in the age of big data. How does data inform your approach to retail design?
I’m really intrigued by how technology can give us a great head start. But a head start is a rough draft. We know data can’t dream, and that’s where designers come in. That’s an important point for me, personally, and for our design team.

We have a tremendous amount of data related to athletes, because we’re studying them obsessively and trying to understand the absolute nuances of what makes an athlete tick and perform. Today, gold medals or performance records are won in fractions – of inches, of seconds – and Nike gives athletes the time and space to slow things down, to understand themselves and to determine where they can move in an athletic event.

The store begins to converse with the data we collect, because the store itself is now a platform. It’s a giant step forward in our attempt to blur the lines between the physical and the digital. Nike sees the mobile phone – everybody has one – as a kind of motivational companion. As you enter the store, the phone and your experience online, combined with the physical reality, can be quite compelling.

We’ve used a couple of experiments lately. We have one store in Los Angeles – Nike by Melrose – that converts and changes almost daily, based on data from members and community. We’re learning from data points what consumers are interested in, what they’re Instagramming, what they’re querying on our websites, what sneakers they’re picking out on our app. We use this information to modify the store as people come in. Ultimately, it’s this killer app that allows us to adapt to the pace of consumption today.

This piece is a preview of the upcoming St-W 126, out on January 1.

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