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game changer

The new Sport Chek store in uptown Toronto takes digital displays and high-definition interactive screens to a whole new level, with the technology visible to even passersby on the street.

If sport is about spectacle as much as it about athleticism, then Sport Chek's new store in uptown Toronto might have kicked off an exciting new game in sporting goods retail – with digital technology as the playing field.

Walk into the store and you'll immediately see the colourful displays of big-brand, high-performance merchandise. But you'll also notice something else: the ubiquity of digital screens, mounted in multiple tiles to create giant displays, set into tables that showcase specific brands, or propped up beside glass cases and clothing racks.

Near the entrance, a 31/2-metre-high "digital wall" lets customers check out the features of two Nike shoe styles by lifting the actual shoes, which are connected by cable to a gaming controller. Turn the shoe, and its image on the screen also turns and displays a description of the shoe's features. Choose the "create art" option and you can use the motion of the shoe to express your inner Picasso, with each movement producing digital art on the screens, accompanied by music.

A few steps away, another digital wall displays row after row of adidas shoes. Touch any shoe's image and you'll get product information, available sizes and colours, and how certain athletes performed while wearing the shoe. Across the floor in the accessories department, a counter-mounted touch screen lets you design your own Oakley glasses, which Sport Chek staff can assemble on the spot.

"We've got 140 screens running 70 channels in this 12,000-square-foot store," says Duncan Fulton, chief marketing officer for Sport Chek, the Calgary-based sporting goods retail chain acquired in 2011 by Toronto-based Canadian Tire Corp. "It's a retail experience you won't get anywhere else."

Opened last January, Sport Chek's uptown store near the intersection of Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue is also the retailer's test lab for its digital concept. Mr. Fulton says the company wants to be more than just a place where consumers go to buy athletic shoes and gear – they can just as easily do that at the competition; instead, Sport Chek wants to build loyalty by inspiring its customers.

And to do that, Sport Chek needs to be relevant to its target audience.

"Eighty per cent of our customers are under 40, only 37 per cent read flyers, and the large majority interact regularly with a digital screen," says Mr. Fulton. "For us to stay relevant to our customers, we need to also connect with them in the digital space."

Creating Sport Chek's digital store was a do-it-yourself project, Mr. Fulton says. The company decided to forgo information technology consultants and instead developed its concept in-house. The process was like running through a checklist.

"We thought about how we want the experience to feel like and then we thought about what we needed to bring the experience to life," Mr. Fulton says. "First, we needed screens so we called Samsung for the screens. Then we said, 'We need content,' so we called the manufacturers – like Nike, adidas, Reebok – and asked them to supply us with information about their products."

That was just the beginning. Realizing it needed to curate and store all this new information, Sport Chek hired staff to edit and manage its content, and installed enterprise-grade servers in the basement of its new store.

It also hired sales staff who were tech savvy and on their game when it came to customer service.

"We didn't want it to be just like a robotic store," Mr. Fulton says. "The digital technology is meant to enhance customer service, not replace it."

The store's digital bells and whistles can be intimidating at first, even to customers who are familiar with touch screens. The adidas shoe wall, for example, can overwhelm by its sheer wealth of choices.

Sport Chek's sales staff are trained to help customers understand and embrace the store's digital tools, Mr. Fulton says. When someone comes in and looks at hockey gear, for example, the Sport Chek employee in attendance might touch a screen to show a product information video. Runners in the market for a new pair of shoes might be led to the Reebok kiosk and shown how to design their own foot chariots – right down to the eyelets and tongue lining.

To get even more out of its technology, Sport Chek has equipped its Toronto staff with wireless headsets so they can easily do things like call down to the storage room and get items brought to the sales floor via a dumbwaiter.

Seriously cool. But does fancy technology translate into sales?

"We took our normal sales figures and, based on that, came up with inflated expectations for this store," says Mr. Fulton, declining to give specific dollar figures. "We're currently running at 150 per cent of our inflated expectations."

On average, Sport Chek customers visit a store about four times a year. While the metrics for the new store haven't come in yet, "Anecdotally, we're seeing the same customers several times a month," Mr. Fulton says.

Sport Chek's dash to digital hasn't been without challenges. Some of its manufacturing partners were cool to the idea in the beginning, Mr. Fulton says. There were also some logistical and technical difficulties, like when the room where the servers are kept overheated, causing some plastic parts to melt. It's now cooled by air conditioning and a fan.

"Technology isn't our core business," Mr. Fulton says. "But now it's becoming a critical part of our business."

Sport Chek plans to build a flagship store in Western Canada – Mr. Fulton won't say where – in November. The new location will cover about 78,000 square feet, and will be a state-of-the-art, cooler-than-anyone-has-ever-seen retail space, he says. "If you think this is cool, the new store will knock your socks off."