lululemon Says Line Between Online, Offline Consumers Gone

For lululemon, the global active-lifestyle brand, there’s no such thing as an online consumer or an offline consumer anymore.

As the channels through which companies can advertise, engage and sell in the market have begun to both multiply and overlap, the need to differentiate between online and offline is quickly disappearing.

Now, there is only the consumer. Or, in lululemon’s case, the “guest.”

“It’s all about the relationship,” says Senior Vice President for Asia Ken Lee, who is based in Hong Kong. “Whether it’s a physical store or not, we believe the relationship is most important.”

 

WATCH: CEO Laurent Potdevin says Tmall has helped the company grow brand awareness among consumers in China’s fast-changing digital landscape and, as a result, its sales too. 

 

That means, these days, the platform is less important because the relationship between brand and guest can be formed in myriad ways. This has proved especially true in China, where lululemon’s philosophy has aligned with the New Retail model being pushed by global technology giant Alibaba Group. New Retail is a way of innovating commerce to allow retailers to meet consumers where they’re at—whether online or off—and often combines the two to create a singular experience.

Here’s an example:

lululemon is planning an offline yoga class in Shanghai in the coming weeks. The brand’s fans claimed the 500 available spots in just 30 seconds, but lululemon is opening the event to all of its guests in China by live-streaming the class on its Tmall flagship store. That way everyone gets the chance to participate. A similar offline event held at Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou drew 160,000 guests viewing the live-stream online.

Lee says it’s a way to celebrate and grow the entire lululemon community irrespective of how—or where—they choose to engage with the brand. “That’s why we believe a guest is a guest regardless of whether they’re shopping in a brick-and-mortar store or not,” he says.

This community-led approach is a core part of the lululemon brand, and the company takes a very unique approach to building one. Rather than merely opening a store in a new market, lululemon creates a showroom where potential guests can purchase product as well as get a sense of the brand. It started with two showrooms in Shanghai and one in Beijing before opening the first store in Hong Kong. The whole time lululemon was learning about the market, from the types of workouts these guests prefer to the style and colors and cuts that they like in their workout gear.

“That sets up for success when we opened up our stores because we knew what products people wanted and what products they didn’t like,” says Lee.

The opening of a flagship store on Tmall in 2015 was another way to explore the market and build its community. More specifically, Tmall was the only e-commerce platform in China that offered the tools necessary for lululemon to tell its full brand story. And that includes going so deep as to explain not just what products are on offer but also why they were made in the first place. lululemon has a “Why We Made This” tag for every item, outlining its uses and the guests most likely to put it to work. This adds to the overall experience for guests to the flagship store, going much further than the basics of text, photos and video.

“You go to Tmall to have a brand experience,” Lee says. “That’s what differentiates it from the rest of the market.”

CEO Laurent Potdevin says that lululemon’s China business has been growing 350 percent year over year, while the Tmall business is on track to triple in 2017. That’s due in no small part to the company’s ability to grow its brand in the world’s second-largest economy through Alibaba.

“We’re not going to open as many stores, or maybe as quickly as we’ve done in North America, but leveraging the digital landscape actually allows us to build brand awareness in a really powerful and nimble way,” Potdevin says.

Still, given the complexity of the China market, and the speed with which it’s developing, lululemon knows there’s still room for growth.

“It’s a relatively new journey,” Lee says. “We’re learning everyday.”