By: Rob Stott
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.—Steve Jobs in a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech
For every entrepreneur who’s in the business of creating any type of product, they all likely share some variation of the same ultimate dream: seeing their product physically stocked on the shelf at a major retailer. There’s nothing like being able to walk into a store, see your product sitting there among other similar items, readily available for the next interested customer that walks by.
That dream, as any retailer would tell you, is getting harder and harder for smaller companies to achieve.
Major retailers today are dead set on optimizing every last square inch of space in their stores in order to maximize profitability. They’re doing so by being more selective with the product they place in their stores, of course. But it’s more than just that. Retailers are dedicating more showroom space to experiential demo areas, which takes up space that would otherwise be occupied by traditional shelving. And they’re also trending towards smaller, express-type stores. A recent report from Kantar Retail showed that smaller-format stores are projected to grow nearly 4 percent annually over the next four years, outpacing the 0.8 percent growth of their big-box counterparts.
And all of this is happening as retailers of all shapes and sizes continue to alter their strategies and find what works best for them in an age where traditional storefront shopping is a thing of the past.
Bottom line, the path of getting one’s product into a brick and mortar retail store can be long and arduous and filled with challenges and a healthy helping of no’s.
So imagine, then, the excitement that must’ve been brewing inside the team at PIQ Sport Intelligence when they found themselves face-to-face with a top merchant from Apple at a recent tradeshow. The chance meeting presented the France-based company with an opportunity to pitch their product to Apple—the most successful retailer in the world based on how much they make per square foot—in a relaxed setting.
“Everyone who wants to grow their brand is to participate a tradeshows,” Florian Hutterer, head of global marketing and sales for PIQ, said while chuckling in an interview with Dealerscope. “In our case this was really a big success. Coming to Apple, as you can imagine they are very selective and they have very high standards. So it was an incredible opportunity that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
What happened next was something of a whirlwind experience. The Apple merchandiser was impressed enough to push PIQ into a manufacturer onboarding process. A little more than a year later, Hutterer and his colleagues found themselves placed in Apple stores and on the Apple website, and with quite the story to tell about what the process was like.
PIQ couldn’t share every last detail, of course, as Apple’s internal processes are more highly-classified than the work of the Central Intelligence Agency. But what Hutterer could share, he did. And it helps paint a very telling picture of just how much Apple cares about the look and feel of their store, but also how invested they become in the success of the products and companies they partner with.
“Apple is not the kind of brand who would just request something from us and wait for us to complete it,” Hutterer said. “They really helped us to go through the process. And they also took the time and gave a lot of feedback through each and every step so that we could really reach a perfect outcome at the end of the day. It was grueling, but it was also worth it.”
What is PIQ?
In browsing the section of non-Apple products that are on display in an Apple store, you’ll notice a few themes that tend to be interwoven throughout the area. All of the products have some tie back to Apple products. Bluetooth speakers allow you to play your iTunes library wirelessly; drones and other remote control vehicles will have an iOS app that’s required in order to operate the thing; there are camera attachments designed for the different variants of the iPhone; and so on.
Those products also are generally on the cutting edge of the consumer tech market. They come from market segments like drones, action cameras and related accessories, gaming, and health and wellness.
PIQ falls into the latter group.
Launched in 2016, PIQ Sport Intelligence is a manufacturer of sport sensor technology. Built around an autonomous intelligence platform called GAIA, PIQ sensors are able to capture and analyze the movements of athletes. The company claims its sensors are anywhere from 30 to 40 times more accurate than a traditional wearable device that can count steps.
“In comparison to a regular fitness track, which counts your steps as you know, our technology can tell you the speed of your tennis swing or the power of your boxing punch,” Hutterer said.
With GAIA, he explained, PIQ’s sensors can actually interpret the user’s motions and offer real-time advice for how to improve their skills or optimize their movements. The product is built to handle a number of different sports, including boxing, tennis, fold, kite boarding, and skiing—a list that will continue to expand over time.
The product itself is a small chip that is thin and lightweight, a design choice that was intended to keep it out of the way so as not to disturb the user. And, unlike some sports sensors that attach to specific product, PIQ sensors mount in different ways depending on the sport the user is participating in. In boxing, for example, the sensor is worn in a wrist band under the gloves—a setup that’s similar to the tennis wristband. Skiers will wear the sensor on their ski boots, while golfers can attach the sensor to their glove.
From there, the experience is driven, naturally, by an app. The sensor will store the data during a training session—so you don’t need to keep your phone on you while kite boarding, for example—and store everything right there for you.
The invite inside the Apple store has been important for PIQ, but the company was already working with some well-known sporting brands around the globe to get itself marketed to the right communities. It’s highest-profile partnerships revolve around boxing and tennis, where PIQ has landed branding and marketing deals with Everlast and Rossignol respectively.
“One of the coolest things at PIQ is that we partner up with the market leader or at least one of the top two players in the industry whenever we launch a new sport,” Hutterer said. “So we always market ourselves and our product as the PIQ sensor by PIQ and Everlast. What’s great about that is that it then gives us access to their marketing machine, their athletes, and their events. Those partnerships have been huge for us.”
A Knockout Punch
Equally as huge today, though, is the Apple partnership that brings PIQ’s ROBOT boxing sensor into the wildly popular retail storefront and the Apple.com accessories page. That reality only became possible after PIQ went through a trying 12-month process with Apple.
Hutterer called it by far the most complex and demanding process he’s ever been through in his 10-plus years in consumer electronics. But, at the same time, he said it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.
“Without blaming any other retailer, usually you're confronted with NDF payments or POS displays or POD displays that you need to create, or it's mostly about pricing,” he said. “But in the case of Apple they really had by far more demand on the customer journey and the product experience than anything else. So what's usually in the front row goes back into the back row, and they really care about the experience.”
Some of the adjustments that PIQ was asked to make revolved around things like enhancements to their app, improving the customer experience with setting the product up, and even got down to the type of packaging the sensor maker would use in the Apple store.
“Our products are packed in a black box or black packaging. And of course, as you would imagine, we needed to redo the whole packaging and make it white,” Hutterer said laughing. “So we had to create a separate unique SKU for Apple in a white box with content that matches their requirements and all their feedback.”
Apple also recommended that the company offer a bundled package of two sensors in a single box, which would allow the user to have one sensor for each hand from the minute they purchase the product through Apple.
“This meant that the customer would actually have a higher purchase price but they would have sensors for both hands in boxing immediately,” Hutterer explained. “That’s obviously something that goes into an experience direction with the product rather than into a pricing direction. And it’s just another example of how much Apple really cares about the experience for their customer.”
And all of the changes PIQ made to the product, the app, and their packaging are already paying off for the company. Since being placed in Apple locations, the company has seen its app rating improve, the number of reviews has skyrocketed, and they’ve been able to move a large volume of product.
“It's a clear sign that the customers were happy with the unboxing experience, with the app set up, and they keep using the product,” Hutterer said. “We can also see in our statistics how the customers are using the product, how often, and in which intensity. And in boxing, since we since we went through the Apple process, it's a very clear uptrend.”
The Work Continues
For PIQ and Apple, the fun really only just got started after the product made it onto shelves earlier this year. Hutterer said that his team has a couple of contacts that they stay in touch with at Apple who help them monitor sales and continue to train the in-store staff on their product. Most efforts now revolve around marketing and getting consumers to see that they’ve been able to add Apple as a retail partner.
Additionally, PIQ is working to gather feedback from Apple and its customers, as well as the in-store and in-app data that they’ve been able to collect, and use that information to drive future product development.
But having now gone through the merchandising process with Apple, Hutterer believes that PIQ is in a position to be better prepared for the next go ‘round.
“It was really, really a big learning experience for us, and next time whenever we come up with a new sport for our product or even when we release a version two, we've now been through this process and know what they care about and what's important to them,” he said. “If you've done it once you're far more intelligent than before.”
In sharing some of that intelligence with other brands, Hutterer said that he would advise others to get their customer narrative in place before beginning work on their product let alone trying to get a retailer to merchandise it.
“Really analyze your customer and get to know your customer before you create a product and not create a product first that's coming out of your mind and then try to push it into the market. Have the patience and get the analyses right,” he said. “I once learned from Simon Sinek that we should always start with the ‘why’ questions, so why am I doing what I'm doing? And only then comes the rest.”
In terms of advice for specifically working with Apple, Hutterer said that brands need to put their egos to the side and just be open to their feedback, because there’s going to be a lot of it. But he also had some advice for Tim Cook and company, as well as the larger retail community, for how they might be able to improve their own working relationships with manufacturers and retail partners. Bottom line there: create a more fluid process.
“Especially with start ups and young innovative tech companies—if they are smaller than me, and they put all the effort they have into getting listed in a store, then the retailer should see that and respect those efforts by making this a fluid process,” he said. “It was, of course, for us a long one, but it also included a couple of times where we just waited for feedback and had to redo things and redo them again. But I think it's a good recommendation to any retailer. If they want to be innovative if they want to stay innovative then keep listing new products, keep working with smaller companies. But give them a chance and maybe offer them a small team who guides them through the process and really purely and truly cares about them. Keep the process fluid and make it quick.”