BREAKING OUT OF THE BOARDROOM

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The corporate conference room may still be the ideal space for board meetings, but it’s no longer the ideal venue for consumer focus groups.
Breaking free from such old-school approaches to consumer research, companies like Nike, Burton and Salomon are turning to a more grassroots strategy. Instead of relying on statistics and snapshots of stylish women provided by outside agencies to help guide them to the next trend, activewear makers are asking women their own questions and changing their strategies accordingly.
Earlier this month, Burton expanded the “Developer” component of its Web site, setting up a home page and separate registration for users at Burton.com. The company uses Developer to talk with snowboarders and get feedback about what it’s doing. Visitors also can rig snow reports for their three favorite mountains and post images of themselves on the Fame section.
Last month, Nike opened NikeGoddess, a women’s-only boutique shop, for the primary purpose of gaining insight into what consumers want. At the new store at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif., an area known for it fitness-conscious flock, sales associates encourage shoppers to complete questionnaires. That information is then used for product development and made available to stores that carry Nike products.
With this somewhat captive audience, Nike can check out not just what women buy, but why they buy. The store also is used to get consumer feedback about key pieces, such as a quilted winter sweater, laminated stretch running wear and Air Shasta and Air Terra Contego all-weather, trail-running footwear.
Another NikeGoddess store is set to open in March at The Grove at the Farmer’s Market in West Hollywood, Calif.
Salomon takes a more active approach with its Oasis Project, a traveling expo that offers skiers and snowboarders the chance to test-drive the brand’s latest products. This year, the event will be held at 15 ski resorts and attendees will have at least 25 percent more product from which to choose compared with last year, said Mike DeCesaro, director of sports and event marketing.
“It’s experiential. We don’t sell anything,” he said. “Hopefully, we try to bring them to the brink of buying.”
Overseas, the company has set up Salomon Station, a more relaxed meeting place for retailers, manufacturers and the media to hang out and learn more about the brand. Located at or near ski resorts, each site has a bar with complimentary drinks and snacks, TVs, video games, Internet access and occasional band performances. There is also plenty of information about Salomon’s history, endorsed athletes and product innovation. In the past year, stations have opened in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan. Now, Salomon is looking into setting up new locations in the U.K., France, Austria and Germany. Unlike the Oasis Project, Salomon Stations are stores open year-round, selling T-shirts, jackets, sports equipment, chocolate and other sundries. They also have a sports library and a promotion zone for new products.
In the past few months, New Balance has teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Sport Innovation, an offshoot of its engineering school, to send out an electronic survey to triathletes. Their tips are being used to develop a new type of triathlon shoe that will be launched this summer, a company spokeswoman said.
Working through MIT allows New Balance to conduct a “broad-based” survey in international markets instead of just holding focus groups in places like Boston or Philadelphia, she added. In addition, the survey is done anonymously so respondents answer without any biases about the brand. The company will follow up with another survey geared for a different sport in the next couple of months.
About six months ago, the WNBA set up a teen advisory roll comprised of 20 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who participate in biweekly conference calls with league executives. The panel changes every six months to get fresh ideas, a WNBA spokeswoman said. Aspiring panelists must complete a questionnaire and write an essay about women’s sports.
Once aboard, panelists discuss topics like hot back-to-school apparel and electronics, ideas for the WNBA’s Web site and potential grassroots programs for WNBA players. Last month, the WNBA passed along the panel’s ideas about how the league’s uniforms can be redesigned to Reebok, the brand that is updating the players’ look.
“We decided we needed more interaction with teens. We knew we needed to tap into that market to understand why they buy,” the WNBA spokeswoman said. “With qualitative research, you get deeper information and it allows the respondent to roam around more. Quantitative research is more restrictive in terms of how the questions are asked and answered.”
Three trend analysts also noted how manufacturers are taking a more hands-on approach to getting consumer feedback.
Emanuelle Linard, manager of Li Edelkoort Inc.’s U.S. office, Trend Union, said her clients are looking for guidelines, not highlights. They can check out what hipsters on the streets of Tokyo and other international cities are wearing online, she noted.
Trend Union still provides clients with information about emerging trends, but the company is taking a more educational slant, Linard said.
“We tell them how we captured the signal of a trend,” Linard said. “We want them to be able to capture their own signals and teach them to apply those signals to their own businesses.”
David Spangler, director of business development for STS, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research company, said firms are moving away from using surveys that measure household purchases for apparel, in favor of data that track an individual’s spending. Through its AccuPanel, STS measures 7,000 consumers’ apparel purchases and acquisitions every month. STS lists Cotton Inc. and Levi Strauss among its clients.
“Clothing is not like peanut butter or cereal that you buy for the whole family,” Spangler said. “When you collect from the same individuals every month, you get a good idea about what’s in their closets.”
STS clients are showing more interest in quizzing online or phoning AccuPanel consumers on their own — something panelists can but are not required to do.
“It’s the client’s panel,” Spangler said. “We’re the intermediary.”
To give clients more frequent updates about the fast-changing teen culture, Jane Rinzler Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, has established Trend Central, a subscriber site packed with images and information about fashion, music, electronics, style and travel trends. Unlike the company’s Cassandra Report, which continues to be published three times a year, Trend Central has weekly updates and sometimes daily snippets.
A section called City Guides gives visitors an insider’s take on various cities. City Guides are used for scouting locations for shoots, seeding product, finding trendy out-of-town restaurants to impress colleagues, finding stops for music tours and checking out what trendsetters are up to.
“We don’t want to be trying too hard. We didn’t want to say we’re cooler than we are,” she said. “But people need to know what’s going on.”

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