Athletic brand Asics Corp., which launched in 1949, has witnessed several shifts in the way consumers purchase fitness gear throughout its history, says Phil Connaughton, director of engineering at Runkeeper, a company that Asics bought last year.
“Over the years, the company has had to make quite a few transitions, but the most recent is finding a way to connect with the consumer outside of just that moment where they need to go buy a new pair of shoes,” Connaughton says.
To make that transition, Asics purchased FitnessKeeper, operator of the fitness tracking app Runkeeper, in March 2016 for $85 million. The deal was aimed at building out the athletic brand’s direct-to-consumer experience, Connaughton says. At the time, Runkeeper had 33 million users who downloaded the app to track their running distance and pace during exercise, as well as to record, manage and analyze activities to help them achieve their fitness goals.
“We need to be able to directly communicate with the customers,” he says. “We need to constantly be on people’s minds.”
Runkeeper enables Asics to connect with consumers every morning when they lace up their shoes to go on their daily run. This helps Asics compete with companies like Amazon.com Inc., which are constantly in communication with consumers after they buy a product, Connaughton says. Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000.
“We’re providing a fitness as a service platform. Runkeeper tracks peoples’ runs and provides an adaptive training plan,” he says. “Inevitably, when you’re training for a marathon, you get injured or you have to miss a week of running, and so we have created fitness plans that will actually adjust as your schedule adjusts so that you can still hit that end goal of the marathon.”
Connaughton, who has been at Runkeeper for six years, joined as a mobile developer and then transitioned into e-commerce. In that role, he worked on selling products to consumers at the right moment to monetize the app. For example, if a runner finishes an evening run, Runkeeper might serve up a product like a light-up vest or a headlamp to help the runner ensure that he’s visible to cars on his next nighttime jog.
The athletic apparel brand created the Asics Global Digital division to drive digital innovation throughout the company a few months after Asics purchased Runkeeper. Since then, the Runkeeper team has focused on helping Asics improve its e-commerce experience.
Recently, that division helped launch a new Asics e-commerce site using technology from integration platform MuleSoft that connects all of Asics brands on the back end, including the Asics Performance Running brand; Asics Tiger and Onitsuka Tiger, both of which are more lifestyle brands; Haglof which is an outdoor fitness and apparel company; and Runkeeper.
“By having MuleSoft sit in the middle and handle the communication back and forth between these systems, we could remove the point-to-point connections that we knew would slow down our e-commerce storefront over time,” Connaughton says.
For example, Asics has two product management systems, two order management systems and two content management systems. In fact, Connaughton says about a dozen systems need to talk to one another on a daily basis for its systems to stay up to date.
“The traditional approach is to write custom code to make these point-to-point connections, which creates a brittle system that is prone to failure and requires a great deal of IT’s time to maintain,” Connaughton says. “MuleSoft is teaching us to take an API [application programming interface]-led approach which will allow us to move a lot faster and make changes in real-time. Leveraging APIs allows us to send incremental changes and see updates immediately versus relying a batch process,” he says. APIs are a way to retrieve information and perform functions. For instance, if a retailer wanted to display the pictures from its Instagram feed on its website it could use an API to retrieve the pictures.
Asics recently used the MuleSoft platform to create an API for inventory tracking. Previously, Asics tracked inventory by having an employee read a file, update a spreadsheet and send an email. The new API now connects directly to the inventory file and flags products that are low in stock.
Connaughton is looking to further improve this process. Currently, that inventory file is only updated nightly, so it’s still not a real-time read of inventory. However, with MuleSoft, Asics can connect directly to the inventory via an API for more real-time inventory data.
With its new system, Asics also allows a consumer to access his order history immediately after purchase.
“In the past, when I wanted to show my wife or my friend this new pair of shoes that I bought and I tried to pull up my order history, the order management system had about a 15-minute delay,” Connaughton says. “It would display a blank screen or say no orders were available, which is not the kind of experience we want to deliver to our customers. Now we’ll be able to immediately display order information back to the customer.”
The new system has enabled us to spend less time working on back-end IT solutions and allowed us to focus more on innovation.
Employees also save time with MuleSoft because they no longer have to build manual connections between systems, Connaughton says. Additionally, because the platform is accessible online, Asics staff members spend less time overseeing its servers.
“We’ve implemented new e-commerce capabilities 2.5 times faster than expected,” he says. “The new system has enabled us to spend less time working on back-end IT solutions and allowed us to focus more on innovation.” For example, Asics employees are now working on site features that will help a runner find the right shoe, Connaughton says.
Asics also is in the middle of a project that will enable shoppers to add products from Asics, Asics Tiger and Onitsuka Tiger to one cart. Currently, a shopper must go to separate websites for each brand.
In this first iteration of the e-commerce platform, Asics focused on its Asics Europe and Haglofs divisions, Connaughton says. Over the next year and a half, Asics plans to roll out the platform in Japan, Australia, the U.S., Canada and other regions that Asics operates in.