Lacrosse Unlimited runs more than 50 specialty sporting goods shops across the United States from its headquarters on Gilpin Avenue in Hauppauge. The family business was founded 25 years ago on Long Island, and despite its maturity it is still testing and experimenting with methods to understand its customers' shopping habits.
It has been quick to try new ways to connect with customers. That meant being early to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as tools to reach the legions of young athletes that make up its customer base. More recently, the company has ventured into less conventional methods, such as mass texting and data collection.
"Even though we have 52 stores, we have a limited budget on marketing," said Tim Fleming, vice president of national sales. When trying new technologies, "we make sure the return on investment is good, or we will not use it for too long."
Experimenting with rapidly changing technologies can help a business. "The opportunities are tremendous in learning about your customer and how to grow that base," said Danielle Conte, founder of Centerport consultancy Youtail Retail. But there can be drawbacks if the interaction is not smooth for shoppers, she said.
Some methods intrusive
Getting Lacrosse Unlimited on key social media channels five years ago took some convincing across the company, Fleming said. The retailer now has more than 23,000 followers on Twitter, 164,000 on Instagram and 45,000 on Facebook.
For six months in 2013-2014, the business also sent out mass text messages about deals and sales to customers. The practice was discontinued because the messages were deemed too intrusive, Fleming said.
About the same time, the company began testing a "beacon technology" service called Nodify in a handful of Long Island stores. Nodify Inc. of West Sayville uses Wi-Fi to pinpoint customers' smartphones and collect detailed data on their visits -- such as time spent in the store and where they go within the store. It does not gather any private or personal information from smartphones.
Beacon technology tends to benefit big chains more because it can collect larger quantities of data on the brick-and-mortar shopping experience and compare high sales locations to underperforming stores, said Natalie Kotlyar, a retail practice leader at accounting/consulting firm BDO USA. "I think for smaller retailers it's definitely a challenge . . . whether it be the cost, the implementation, the maintenance of it," she said.
Businesses should also be cautious of customer perception of new technologies, Conte said. One important factor is employee education -- making sure workers understand the technology and can convey its benefits to concerned shoppers.
But used the right way, services like beacon technology offer proven sales benefits in some retail sectors, said Nicole Larrauri, a managing director at The EGC Group, a Melville-based digital marketing firm.
Nodify has helped Lacrosse Unlimited by providing accurate customer counts, Fleming said. The data revealed that some stores were getting more foot traffic than anticipated, but sales were not being generated. This indicated that the staff might need more sales training.
"At this stage mostly it's used to see how many people are coming in . . . and using that data to see if we can improve the customer experience," Fleming said.
Luring shoppers inside
But Nodify can also work as a proximity marketing tool. When shoppers download a retailer's app, Nodify can collect data on what they buy online. It then offers them customized deals via "push" notifications on their phones when it detects they are near a store, to entice them inside. Lacrosse Unlimited is building an app with this capability, Fleming said.
But retailers should remember that a key attraction of in-store shopping is still a personalized, human experience, analysts said. "The customer is going in for . . . customer service. That comes from face-to-face interaction," Kotlyar said.
While Lacrosse Unlimited also plans to grow its e-commerce arm, Fleming echoed the importance of improving the customer-salesperson interaction. "That's all we have over online -- someone there taking care of the customer."