Lululemon’s senior vice president of innovation talks marrying tech, science and human behaviour

  • News
  • March 16, 2017
  • Elly Strang
Lululemon’s senior vice president of innovation talks marrying tech, science and human behaviour

Lululemon is the queen of the activewear retailers. Its attention to the in-store environment is legendary, but what about the technology behind its products? We picked the brains of Tom Waller, one of the Better By Design CEO Summit's key speakers, and found out there’s more to this brand than meets the eye.

In the basement of retail behemoth Lululemon’s headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, a team is tinkering away on everything from textile engineering to nano-technology.

The task at hand? Create forward-thinking products, services and experiences, and solve problems that customers of the CAD$3 billion company don’t even know they have.

This 100-strong group makes up athletic apparel brand Lululemon’s Whitespace innovation and R&D laboratory.

Four years ago, the lab began with the company’s senior vice president of innovation, Tom Waller, and a textile engineer. Now, it’s home to human behaviourists, scientists and strategists, as well as an innovation management team to keep all the fun in check.  

“As scientists, we do really like to play, and at some point you have to generate value,” Waller says in a sit-down interview at the Better By Design CEO Summit.

Waller, who’s the former Head of Aqualab, Speedo’s global R&D and innovation facility, describes the act of innovating as part-art, part-science, part-contact sport.

Humans are resistant to change, he says, and as a scientist, he naturally inclines towards a scientific metaphor: “When you work for a company as powerful as Lululemon, the antibodies are strong. The last thing we want to happen is getting rejected by the host. We work hard to build the vaccines and antidotes to the change.”

“It takes a certain amount of resilience. I’ve said this before: Everyone loves the idea of disruption until it’s on their doorstep and you have to forgive people for that.” 

Technology peacocking

Working in laboratory filled with 3D printers, heat sensing cameras, stationery bikes and a swimming pool sounds like an experimental wonderland, but heading up a team whose purpose is to generate innovations for a global giant comes with its challenges.

Take Apple, for example, which is constantly under pressure to come up with a fresh leap forward in innovation every time it rolls out a new product.

Lululemon admittedly feels a bit of that pressure too, but Waller says the team works hard to ensures each insight they come up with is useful in the long run.

“The world is always asking for what’s next, and we tread a delicate balance between creating space for our company to grow and delivering change for change’s sake,” Waller says.

“I really don’t support ‘technology peacocking’ when you just want to solve a difficult problem. For a company to continue to grow and extract new value, it’s always about taking the past of best resistance, so we work hard to search for that.

“It would be very easy as people playing in the future to get distracted by bright shiny objects, but we have a robust process for holding ourselves accountable, failing fast and adapting quickly.”

If Whitespace is doing its job well, Waller says every area of the business is impacted, from the head office right down to the individual stores. 


Getting naked

An example of this was in 2015, Whitespace lab’s research-backed work changed the way Lululemon sells its pants.

Its pants, which retail in New Zealand for upwards of $135 a pop, contribute a significant portion of revenue to the company.

Originally, they were organised in-store on its pants wall by the silhouette they created (tight to loose).

But with more competitors taking notice of what the company was doing and entering the marketplace, Luluemon wanted to differentiate itself.

“Good innovation practice is when you go right back to your core value proposition and you reinvest in it in a way that changes people’s perspectives,” Waller says.

“We went, ‘Okay world, when you buy our products, what the most important thing that you really, really tell us?’ What we hear is how our products feel. Interestingly, that coincides with our focus, which is on the science of feel. Knowing we are focused on our products differentiating through the sensory experience you have, we demonstrated to the world that’s why they are buying our products and reverse engineered the secret source.”

With this in mind, Lululemon’s pants wall was reorganised by sensation, rather than by looks.

“Guests used to come in-store and we’d say, ‘What is it you like to do?’ And we’d say, ‘This is the pant for you.’ Now what we do is we pause for a moment and say, ‘How do you like to feel?’ Because we recognise everyone has a slightly different preference of how they like to feel when they’re doing the thing they love to do.”

It also led to a new product being created: The ‘naked’ pants, as Whitespace lab unearthed something that people hadn’t yet experienced in athletic apparel - feeling like they were nude.

According to Business Insider, the revamped pants wall and product offering boosted its sales by 19 percent over five months.

The new way of defining products by feel instead of fit has since been rolled out to other clothing categories across the company.  

Crystal gazing

The Whitespace lab’s focus is both how clothes impact a person’s physical performance and the metaphysical aspects surrounding athletic ability.

Often, it’s looking five to 10 years ahead into the future, rather than the following year. But as anyone operating in the retail space knows, predicting that far ahead is hard, and throwing predictions around how technology will change into the mix is even harder.

Waller says it’s not so much about predicting the future, but wondering what it might be like.

We say ‘what if’ a lot. We say, ‘What if people start to change the way they even exist in a high-street environment? What if people bring being active into their lives in a way that means that the working environment fundamentally has to shift? What if health becomes more important over personal financial gain?

It’s a broad space to be playing in, but he says they experiment and see what feels right.

“When you’ve got something tangible you can play with like a piece of technology or an experience we designed, we just do it. By doing it, we can say, ‘Does this really feel like 10 years in the future?’ And if it does and if we think we’re onto something, we’ll invest a bit deeper, expand the team a bit more.”

AI and loincloths  

In terms of the AI, VR and AR space, Waller says, “We’re interested in everything.”

He says the company is investing in and exploring all of the above, but the key thing to remember is it isn’t about the technology, or as he dubs it, “Technology peacocking.”

“It’s about human experience that’s facilitated by technology and it always has been,” he says.

If the technology can enhance a person’s physical, mental and emotional potential, then Waller’s all for it.

“Think of us as a species. We’re the only species that not really finished, and the things that define us are we feel emotion, we make fire and we clothe ourselves. Making fire – energy –and clothing – they’re the most important technologies to humankind, they define us as a species, but it was never about the clothing, it’s about what clothing allowed you to do,” he says.

“We were able spread across the entire planet and not be limited by a particular environment or geography or hostile climatic conditions, and that’s where technology gets really important.

We look at AI the same we’d look at a loin cloth. They’re just tools that enable human potential, whatever that might be.

And with Lululemon Whitespace lab’s unique marriage of technology, science and a human-centric approach, it means there’s room for the company to grow beyond the clothing category it resides in.

Though some might flippantly dismiss the company as ‘that athleisure brand’, Waller says athletic apparel is the area its focus is grounded in – for now.

“We never really describe ourselves as a sporting technical apparel company, it just happens that that happens to be the best place to apply our expertise,” he says.

“We can be all kinds of things – we can be the future of healthcare. The constraint that we apply is making sure we utilise our resources most effectively deliver the vision we set out on over the next 5 to 10 years.”

This story originally appeared on Idealog.

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