Survival of the fit: How Decathlon coped with COVID-19

May 11, 2020

AND ON the fifty-third day, Decathlon reopened.

It wasn’t a total reopening, of course. Almost two months after ECQ was first announced over Luzon, existing lockdown guidelines meant the sports store’s three branches would still remain shuttered. In fact, Decathlon’s May 5 announcement could only say its e-commerce store was, once again, ready for business.

But to Decathlon’s management, it already felt like a tremendous victory.

“The reopening was like winning a championship cup,” said Aya Garcia, Decathlon’s communications manager, in an email interview with SPIN Life. “It was a wave of positive feedback and support. It really felt like we were never gone.”

Big box store

Like many retailers in the pre-COVID era — a time that now seems like a dim memory — Decathlon bet big on in-store visits. And by big, we mean this literally. Its first Philippine store (occupying a wide chunk of Festival Mall in Alabang) boasted 4,000 square meters of retail space, offering everything from basketballs to weights to full-face snorkeling masks that let you breathe through your nose.

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It’s not that it had put all their eggs into physical retail. Even when it first opened in 2017, Decathlon was already investing in e-commerce.

“Our physical stores are part of our omni-channel strategy to help us interact and serve our customers better,” said CEO Hans Iff at the time. “As consumer shopping behaviors and expectations are changing, we want to offer a seamless user experience, both in-store and online.”

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But retail as a whole, whether online or offline, ground to a halt when an enhanced community quarantine was imposed over the entire Luzon. Non-essential businesses, said the government, would need to remain closed. Shelter-in-place orders, inter-city military checkpoints, staff confined at home — Decathlon was in no position to fulfill delivery orders.

“We tried to explore as many avenues as we could, but of course, we had to comply with safety regulations," said Garcia. "We decided to halt our operations until given the go signal by the government.”

And so, like Nike, adidas, and many other sports brands in the current global shutdown, Decathlon turned to fitness.

“With consumers confined indoors, daily Google search results for 'home gym,' 'home workout' and 'home fitness' are higher than back in January — typically the peak month for exercise promotions,” wrote Kayla Marci of retail data analytics firm Edited on April 9.

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On the first day of ECQ, Decathlon posted a complete one-month workout plan on Facebook — perfect for the quarantine’s initial deadline of April 12. (It would later be extended twice, and is expected to be lifted, at least in the NCR, on May 15.) It then regularly began posting more fitness content across its platforms.

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“Since we could not supply products, we started doing free sports sessions with certified coaches with our partners and Decathlon teammates,” Garcia explained. “We continuously shared tips on how to work out at home, [even] without equipment.”

This was a sharp pivot, social media-wise. Prior to COVID-19, Decathlon’s social media messaging had largely focused on their extensive range of products. But like many others in the pandemic age, Decathlon found it had to turn itself, at least for the moment, into a fitness brand.

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Grand reopening

It’s a pivot that makes sense.

With a focus on fitness during the height of the China outbreak, Nike’s digital sales in the region jumped 30 percent.

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Similarly, Decathlon Singapore reported a 43 percent increase in workout equipment sales, while online sellers in the country said that their most popular fitness items were selling out.

When Decathlon Philippines finally reopened its e-commerce store on May 5, it was like a dam breaking open. The flood of customers temporarily short-circuited its website. A few hours after their initial announcement, it had to post a “Time out!” announcement and apologize for the technical issues customers were running into.

“We saw the demand,” admitted Garcia, “but we did not expect it to be this much.”

She continued candidly: “Sometimes, during games, you find your gear faulty, [or you’re] faced with some bad luck. [That] was exactly how the story went for us.”

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The huge surge of traffic resulted in website lapses, but she also said that they ran into technical issues that were unrelated to the demand. Decathlon called for reinforcements to stabilize the site and stabilize the flow of orders.

So far, most of Decathlon’s customers in the new normal are looking for bodybuilding and cross-training accessories — that is, dumbbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, and other weight training equipment you’d find in the gym. The so-called “soft gym” category (yoga or pilates mats and apparel, as well as elastic bands and Swiss balls) is also on the rise.

But Garcia also noted an increased demand for family sports accessories. This is a broad category that includes wall-mounted or free-standing basketball hoops, portable badminton sets, soft archery ranges, velcro target balls, and even dartboards.

Garcia would not cite specific numbers or products, but said, “These types of home accessories would give you the closest experience [to] sports outdoors.”

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With their online store now relatively stable, Decathlon is now looking at how it would function in the new normal. At the back end, it’s working on a project that would expand their logistics capacity and long-term inventory. It’s also tentatively exploring the idea of offering second hand items for sale, so that they would have a more budget-friendly option for customers.

“At Decathlon, we will always adjust our game plan based on the needs of our users,” Garcia said. “[W]ith this mindset, we are ready to prepare and adjust for the ‘new normal’.”

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