Teams are always trying to improve the fan experience, so how can they do it at retail?
The New York Islanders have gone to great lengths, and with growing success, to improve and change the retail experience for fans at the year-old UBS Arena through their innovative retail concept “Isles Lab.”
The idea, championed by co-owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky, merges sport, fashion and design and first class customer service (along with state of the art and speedy checkout systems) that recognized a gap at the intersection between hockey-related merchandise and the rising popularity of streetwear and luxury sporting goods. As a result of Isles Lab, the team, also celebrating its 50th anniversary season, is now a top 5 team in the league in sales per attendee (the key metric in which the NHL measures performance) and projected to be No. 1 next year. Fans line up before every game not just to purchase, but to simply go through the store to see what items are new, with merchandise ranging from $10 to one of a kind items in excess of $15,000.
A team of seasoned luxury retail executives are involved with Isles Lab, including Paul Price, former Chief Merchandising Officer at Burberry, who oversees the initiative, and Rene Holguin, founder of RTH Design and former SVP of Creative Services at Levi’s, who is the Creative Director of Store Design, Styling and Visual Merchandising.
How is it working out? We asked Price to give us the breakdown.
Team Marketing Report: In a world of cookie cutter fandom we are now starting to see teams take the custom experience route, why has it changed?
Paul Price: People around the world are looking for differentiated experiences when they leave home. When we built UBS Arena we wanted it to be a place where “boutique hospitality met live entertainment.” This approach was used for all aspects of the experience, including Isles Lab, and it has resonated extremely well with our fans. The surprise and delight element we have been creating, where people make coming to Isles Lab even just to see what’s new—and there is always something new—is unique, different and something we feel confidently will change the team retail experience forever. That personalization opportunity is key, as fans can even customize their own jersey with numbers and patches unique to them and even have it delivered to them while the game is going on.
TMR: Isles Lab is an experiential venue that has fans returning every night. How valuable is that repeat fan coming back to browse, and why?
PP: Every time a fan enters the arena we look it as a means to grow the brand. As such, we have new items in Isles Lab each game and work to continually improve the service and hospitality in store. While in many places going to the “team store” is not a must do for anyone who is coming to a game, we are making Isle
s Lab a place where fans come in, share ideas and then come back again and again to see the growth and let others know.
Our consumer experience has to be the same of the best high end retail store experiences, and that’s why we put a premium on listening to our fans for what they want and then acting accordingly. They are our top priority.
TMR: The experience is very hands on and interactive, how valuable is input from the fans in determining items to be created?
PP: The Islanders welcome input from fans on a daily basis. Crowdsourcing is a key piece of our creative process. You will see in the store pieces that some of our fans have even created as well as designers from far and wide. If someone comes in with an ask about an item we should have, we take the time to look into it, if someone mentions a local artist or designer we could work with, we take it seriously and investigate. This is not a one way experience, it is probably the most collaborative retail space anywhere in the industry.
TMR: Isles Lab’s experience has a great deal of high end limited items, how do you decide what fans may want?
PP: We have seen that our fans love items that are modern in look and feel yet celebrate legacy and tradition. For example, the 50th Anniversary and Retro Reverse lines are some of the most popular in our collection. That being said, we have small items that people are always looking for.
It may sound simple, but if you listen and talk to the fans when they come in, or respond to their online queries, you grow the engagement and the fan base. When you do that, the experience improves for all without compromising key elements like style and quality.
TMR: What’s been the biggest surprise in bringing high end experiential retail to an NHL team store?
PP: The biggest surprise has been the similarity between the worlds of high-fashion and sports. They both deal with a relentless schedule and can have enormous psychic impact and reach. It’s why we are looking to always expand our thoughts on collaborations, whether that is with elite designers who can create custom items, or in more local creators who have great ideas that we can bring to life.
We want people to say when asked, “I bought this at Isles Lab,” so that others in our universe, and because of a growing online presence that expands way beyond the physical store, have the same ability to truly love the items we create.
TMR: In a team environment is exclusivity more important than mass production today? If so, why?
PP: We aspire to give our fans exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences and look at every interaction as a means to grow the brand. Our fans are looking for special moments, and we have the passion to deliver them. We need to keep driving added value to all that we do. The tangible impact Isles Lab can deliver is just as, or even more important, than what can be done in the digital space.
TMR: Does the value of items available only at UBS Arena slow down the experience for fans who can’t make it there? How does this expand to mass market?
PP: Isles Lab is an omnichannel experience and is available online for guests who cannot make it to the arena. Isles Lab is not intended to be mass market. (As stated above) Isles Lab is intended to be a unique experience for our fans).
TMR: We have seen other teams open “retail stores” in cities far and wide. Is the Isles Lab concept expandable to high-end retail districts like New York’s Fifth Avenue or does it have to live at UBS Arena?
PP: Yes, the Isles Lab concept is expandable to Fifth Avenue and beyond. The Islanders are a global brand, and Isles Lab has the potential to grow in Metro New York and around the world. This is just the first step, but we wanted to start with the place where our fans are most engaged, and that is on game night at UBS Arena.
TMR: What has been the response from other teams to the concept? is it exportable to every market?
PP: Other teams have been complimentary of our work, and we have seen Isles Lab presented as a best-in-class concept at NHL team-wide conferences. Since the launch of Isles Lab, we have seen other organizations innovating their retail concepts, and the NHL is ripe for creativity in the retail space.
We aspire to give our fans exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences and look at every interaction as a means to grow the brand.
TMR: Lastly, we are in an online retail world now. What is lost if Isles lab were just online? How valuable is the in store experience to the fans?
PP: In the battle of online versus physical retail, Amazon has won the war. However, brands are built in the physical environment and through experience. We have built Isles Lab as a means to build the brand, improve our positioning in the market, and grow the business.
That being said, there is nothing can replace the experience of being in a physical space where the excitement of the hockey rink and the state-of-the-art amenities of a destination like UBS Arena mixes with a best in class retail experience, and that is our ultimate goal.
Blending those two pieces of support and fandom like never before. We aren’t totally there yet but we are well on our way.
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