Decathlon’s ‘non-behemoth’ ethos in Canada

From the C-Suite newsletter: The retailer's rapid expansion is fueled by a localized strategy and experiential concepts.

Laylone Lee

Before joining Decathlon in 2020, Jaylone Lee had already been “seduced… as a mother and as a customer” by the sporting goods retailer’s accessible price points and in-store experience.

Some time ago, she visited a Decathlon store in Montreal, not sure whether her 18-month-old would be able to handle her first scooter. But after her daughter was given the chance to test the product in one of several test zones, proving it wouldn’t be a waste of money, Lee was sold.

Now as the Canadian CMO of the French sporting giant (with operations in 57 countries), Lee offers this anecdote during an interview about Decathlon’s newest experiential store – its first in western Canada – as an example of the ethos that has helped the brand expand.

Set to open in the fall at Calgary’s Southcentre Mall, the nearly 70,000 square-foot location will be supported by a back-of-house automated warehouse that will open up even more space for experiences, programming and activities, Lee says.

The first-of-its-kind concept for the brand will offer customers a showroom-based shopping experience, as well as a café, a co-working space, after-sale service workshops and a multi-sport gymnasium where activities and classes can be held by local coaches. It will also double up as a fulfilment centre for online orders coming from the western provinces.

It will be Decathlon’s eighth full-concept Canadian store since it first arrived here in 2018. Locally headquartered in Quebec, currently the retailer has five locations in that province and one in Atlantic Canada. A few weeks ago, a Burlington, Ont. pop-up was converted into a full store. Meanwhile, a store in Vaughan, outside of Toronto, is currently being built, and a Brampton, Ont. pop-up will open as soon as health measures allow.

And, soon, Decathlon’s western presence will not be limited to Calgary. Lee says the company is currently looking for store directors to help develop local strategies and eventually open stores in Winnipeg and Vancouver, though locations and timelines have not been set.

In an interview with strategy, Lee explained what differentiates the retailer’s “non-behemoth” approach to selling sporting goods, what drives its Canadian marketing strategy, and why national marketing campaigns may soon be on the horizon for the retailer.

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Decathlon still lacks widespread awareness in parts of Canada. How do you ensure new stores will be successful?  

When we come into a new region, we like to have boots on the ground to help us build out our local strategy… We look for local talent who know the market. Decathlon, worldwide, has a very local-first approach. It’s actually one of our challenges from a marketing perspective. We’re not, at the moment, brand-first – we’re local-first.

We’re constantly scouting locations… We need fairly large square footage; we want high traffic areas and to have an opportunity to connect with a local community. So sometimes we’ll go into a less “sexy location.” We won’t necessarily go into a higher-end location because it doesn’t allow us to truly connect and bring forward our values, which are to make sports accessible to the many.

You opened a pop-up in Burlington and will soon open another in Brampton, and have or will turn both into full-store locations. Are you simply testing demand in those markets? 

No, not at all. So far in Canada, we haven’t opened pop-ups for assessment purposes; we’ve opened them as part of the marketing strategy to connect with the local community. It’s part of the marketing plan. So far, the pop ups that have opened have been exactly in the confirmed locations [of future permanent stores]. But in each of those situations, it allowed us to connect with the community faster, sooner. They get to meet our team members, get to experience our culture and [purchase from a] curated assortment of our products.

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What are you trying to achieve with the new Decathlon store? 

One thing that’s very new is that it’s going to have a distribution centre. The back of the store is effectively a warehouse and distribution centre. It’s going to be automated, so it will actually serve as a second distribution centre for Decathlon Canada.

Obviously, it’s a way for us to be more efficient and serve our western Canadian ecommerce orders. But by having the distribution centre attached to the store, it also allows us to test a new front-of-house experience. It’s one where we won’t need to put all of the inventory on the store floor.

There are categories of products where the inventory will be in the automated warehouse, and because it’s automated, when people request items from the front of the store, we’re expecting that, in under five minutes, they’ll be able to have those items delivered to them either to try on or to purchase. So it allows us to free up square footage to bring even more experiences.

Typically, all of the Decathlon big stores have a high-touch, high-experiential component. There are test zones. You regularly see people testing bikes; we have a slackline set up for people to try in the climbing area; we have archery set up. So we’re all about bringing experience to the store – all of that is still true for Calgary, but we’re taking it up a notch. At the same time, since it’s a new market, the customers haven’t seen another Decathlon store. So all of the elements were there for us to be able to run this test almost like in a lab situation.

Decathlon launched its first major push with Rethink last year. What marketing tactics are you using to support the new store openings? 

We are, for the moment, taking a very local-first approach. Our stores are of a large footprint, so they are effectively hubs for regions. We call them influence zones. And so we will look at every store and their performance and penetration in the market and then we’ll select marketing activities based on what that store in that region needs [whether that means billboard or radio or flyers.] We’re starting to get a fair amount of awareness in Quebec, so there’s momentum in that market. And then obviously, every store in and of itself is a billboard, right? There’s no greater marketing than having an experiential store. So we’re capitalizing on that.

IMG-5191Once we start opening out west, we’re going to start to have a footprint where talking about national campaigns is something that we will consider. I can’t speak to any particular plans right now. There’s some thinking behind that. But because of our very local approach – even though we are shipping ecommerce, nationally – it just wasn’t the right time. We’re still in these early days where we get a lot from just our expansion.

The next step, obviously, for our continued growth will be to tell our story. So storytelling and bringing forward all of our brand values in a way that as many people in Canada can understand quickly is definitely top of mind – and it is the second step after we get through the next few openings.

When the time comes to launch a national campaign, do you expect the Canadian team will have some agency in setting the direction? Or does Decathlon typically leverage global assets and campaigns? 

We didn’t come into Canada with a national campaign, because it’s exactly the difference between Decathlon and some of the other international brands that we may have seen come into the retail market. We have a non-behemoth approach. So it’s not a monolithic brand experience that we want to steamroll into the market. Decathlon’s strength is in catering to the local market and connecting with the local communities.

Decathlon in general doesn’t do international brand campaigns. So while collaborations with other countries are always in discussion, and there’s the ability to leverage assets that may exist coming from our brands or from international, typically our modus operandi is to cater to the local market. So I’m fairly sure that our approach would be something catered to Canada, to tell our story in the most compelling way to reach and be relevant to as many Canadians as possible. We do have ongoing, fruitful conversations with Rethink. So it’s very likely that they would be involved. That’s about as much as I can say for now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.