You know the scene: A sleek-looking storefront, a velvet rope, stone-faced security guards—and a line 100-people deep trying to see if they can score a pair of rare sneakers or a limited-edition T-shirt. The so-called “drop” has become a quintessential part of the modern retail experience. It’s a way for brands to build hype, influence trends, and get customers in the door. But what if those eventful releases dispensed with the pomp and circumstance and went completely online? Nike decided to find out.

“Traditionally, you have to be in one of the major markets and be available to stand in line at a store at a specific period of time,” says Scott Lachut, president of research and strategy at retail consulting firm PSFK. “But Nike decided to gamify this experience.” Lachut analyzed how Nike pioneered the “digital drop” as a way to reach new customers outside of major cities like New York and Los Angeles.

Call it democratization by data. By reaching out to consumers long ignored by other brands, Nike provided an opportunity for them to obtain a pair of rare sneakers without having to stand in line for days. Users simply had to download an app, wait for a notification, and then follow the clues to a location that had been geo-tagged with an AR-enabled prize. Customers in Berlin were able to snag a pair of shoes from the designer Virgil Abloh, while sneaker heads in Atlanta were given the option of four different geo-specific releases.

It’s a unique example of how innovative brands are using data to gain new customers, drive revenues, and distinguish themselves from competitors. The more you know about your potential clients, the easier it is to use their data to provide an experience that feels tailored to them—and turn a window-shopper into a lifelong buyer.


Every time a potential patron peruses your site or enters your store, they’re leaving behind a rich trail of data. But understanding that data is essential, otherwise it can feel like you’re drinking from an information fire hose.

“There’s just so much data online, and you can be overwhelmed by it,” says Jeff Neville, executive vice president at the retail innovation firm BRP. He says it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise when you’re looking at all this information for the first time. What firms should be concentrating on is the connective tissue between data points. “Retailers used to just be able to look at sales,” Neville says. “But now you can connect that to traffic data and promotional data and dwell time and cell-phone activity.” This detailed picture of potential new shoppers can help retailers tap into dormant markets and drive customer acquisition.

Knowing as much as you can about your potential customers is crucial, but Luke Williams, executive director of the W.R. Berkley Innovation Lab at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, says that information is only as good as the people looking at it. “Data never tell the same story to two different people,” he says. He encourages firms to pursue what he calls “unreasonable provocations,” the kind of unquantifiable inquisitions that lead firms to be truly disruptive.

It’s that sort of curiosity that led Nike to turn an idea on its head with the digital drop. They learned about their potential customers, looked at the facts, and asked questions no one had considered. The blend of quantitative and qualitative analysis can yield deep insights. Data should be the beginning of the conversation about how to grow your customer base, not the end.