In November 2021, a new product began appearing in Lululemon’s Canadian stores. Alongside the leggings and yoga mats was what seemed to be a slender wall-mounted mirror with a glowing white “M” in its centre. When customers tapped on a workout listed on an iPad beside it, the reflective surface turned black. Next to the user’s reflection, an image appeared from the ether—this time, a man with a pair of dumbbells.
“What’s up, what’s up, what’s up!” the cheery holographic figure called. Pop music started blasting in the background. “Team 100, I’m Gerren Liles, and this is your fifteen-minute training class focused on your arms and your abs.”
Liles is a real human—a fitness trainer in New York City with 108,000 Instagram followers. He’s also one of the many trainers on Mirror, Lululemon’s futuristic at-home workout device.
Mirror offers both pre-recorded classes and live sessions, and its users see themselves reflected beside their instructor and copy their moves: they walk out to plank position; they do a series of push-ups; they grunt out bicep curls. A counter tracks calories burned and heart rate. In its live classes—and there are about twenty each day—the other attendees appear at the bottom, Mirror’s built-in camera streaming a parade of video avatars. Instructors can watch the attendees and give feedback—“Tap your ankles, Donna Anne,” Liles shouts out during one set of crunches. For those less excited about push-ups, there are other cheerful instructors teaching yoga, Pilates, boxing, dance, barre, and tai chi. Mirror has been billed as the future of exercise: all the personal guidance of a professional instructor in your own home.
Mirror was created by Brynn Putnam, a Harvard-educated former ballerina and Lululemon brand ambassador who says she came up with the notion when she was newly pregnant and trying to work out from home. Having already run a boutique fitness studio in New York, Putnam won seed funding to hire a team of engineers to develop the product, eventually launching it in 2018. Mirror quickly gained momentum thanks to endorsements from celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Reese Witherspoon. Ellen DeGeneres called it a “magic mirror” on TV. In early 2020, Putnam said she saw Mirror as the “next iPhone” and “the third screen in people’s homes.”
A few months later, in summer 2020, the fledgling company was snapped up by Vancouver-based Lululemon for $500 million. The devices are now marketed as a luxury product in every sense, with minimalist aesthetics (no unsightly wires or bulky gear) and a maximalist price tag. Mirror screens launched a little more than a year later in Canada at a retail price of $1,900 and carried a $50 per month subscription fee for live classes. With the acquisition, Lululemon heralded a new future: it was now a tech company, awash with all the optimism and opportunity that the designation offers.
When Lululemon bought Mirror, CEO Calvin McDonald said the pandemic helped the company “see quicker into the future”—and the future was augmented reality. “Guests have accelerated their behavior and accelerated the adoption of in-home sweat,” he said in an interview with the New York Times (“guests” being a Lululemon-ism for customers). It fit into the company’s “Power of Three” business plan, which, along with doubling men’s and online revenue, laid out a vision to become an “experiential brand” that finds customers “across multiple experiences,” including their homes.
Lululemon didn’t have to strain to see the potential in home workouts. In the throes of the pandemic, while the deal was being finalized, no one was going out to gyms or spin classes. Home fitness had a captive market. Peloton, the stationary bike upstart, was selling more units than it could manufacture, even at nearly $2,000 per bike and $55 per month in subscription fees. Its sales shot up 172 percent by September 2020, and its share price skyrocketed approximately 400 percent by the end of the year.
Tamara Szames, a fashion industry expert at the NPD Group, a market research company, says it made sense at the time for Lululemon to think about creating its own workout equipment. It was a way to bring in and keep its own customers “as tight to home as possible.” Companies like Peloton showed it was possible to quickly build closed online communities around products, with some livestreamed classes from quirky personalities. Ideally, this model creates a virtuous circle: people take your classes, buy your products, then take more classes.
But moving into unfamiliar territory also comes with the risk of overextension, especially when the money is flowing. As the lockdowns ended and the world returned to something more akin to normal, the ground shifted once again: customers, no longer content to live behind screens, began seeking real experiences outside their homes. It meant that Lululemon, typically with its finger on the pulse of the fitness world, may have placed a significant bet on a digital future that is nothing more than a passing fad.
In 2020, just about everything that apparel companies thought they knew about their customers seemed to collapse. Overnight, dressing up became a non-starter, and athleisure morphed into a daily uniform. Clothing experts called it “casualization”—goodbye workplace socials, hello at-home Zoom parties. The trend propelled Lululemon to new heights. Its stores closed in early 2020, but online orders picked up and didn’t stop. By the first three months of 2021, its sales had increased by more than 88 percent from the previous year, reaching $1.2 billion. The people had spoken, and they wanted stretchy pants.
With so much money on the line, apparel companies started looking at what other untapped markets were out there. Pivoting to tech was increasingly seen as the answer. Nike, for one, had millions more people downloading its run club and workout apps in 2020, which it then used to gather data on customers’ exercise routines and place products in home workout videos. It also started making plans to sell virtual NFT shoes in the metaverse. (A year later, after crypto prices crashed, Nike seemed to have distanced itself from these operations.) Alo Yoga, a smaller yoga lifestyle brand endorsed by Kendall Jenner, reported a sevenfold increase in subscriptions to its $20 a month online yoga classes and began expanding its offerings.
Mirror was just one of the moves into health tech for Lululemon. In the summer of 2021, the company announced a new $20 million project called Wellbeing.ai, where it aimed to build a health platform with an artificial intelligence chatbot. The software would harness data like a user’s weight, heart rate, and hours of sleep to give custom lifestyle advice.
When Canada reopened, Lululemon shops added sections that looked more like an Apple Store, with its Mirror products featured prominently. But there were early signs the business was having difficulties with its new product. Putnam, the founder of Mirror, stepped down from her role in 2021. Current and former employees told Business Insider that the acquisition came sooner than expected and technical issues like “buggy” software went ignored. One said members of Lululemon’s marketing teams requested not to be placed on projects involving Mirror because of a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities. (Lululemon declined requests from The Walrus to speak to a representative or its employees for this story.)
In other boardrooms, the whiplash from the end of lockdowns was more pronounced. It quickly became clear the idea that consumer habits had irrevocably shifted was wrong. Peloton sales began to slump at the end of 2021 as subscriptions declined. The company was forced to pause production the following January as demand waned. One month later, it laid off 2,800 people and announced that its CEO was stepping down. By December 2022, Peloton’s share price had crashed 95 percent from its peak.
Mirror sales didn’t do as well as anticipated either. After setting expected revenue between $250 million and $275 million in 2020, Lululemon cut its projections by half, to between $125 million and $130 million by the end of 2021. The company seemed to have stopped disclosing sales information soon after. On a call with investors in the fourth quarter of 2021, McDonald just said Mirror sales were going as expected and were “consistent with the guidance we provided.”
Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and still its largest individual shareholder, said the company’s stores didn’t have sales processes in place for a tech product, the selling of which is quite different from selling shirts or yoga pants. “Lululemon buying into a technology company and owning it is way outside their area of expertise,” he said during a call in the summer of 2022. “And I would say that they bought it . . . because they had way too much money in the bank. And they didn’t know what to do with it.” Wilson argued that it was a stretch too far: previous diversifications into lines like personal hygiene products and face cleansers had also required an entirely different sales process, but building those had not been as complex an experience as that with Mirror, he added.
Wilson characterized Lululemon’s tech gambit as a short-term decision driven by shareholder pressure: “They knew nothing about the product, they knew nothing about how they were actually going to sell it.” Mirror works for people who are time constrained or isolated but not for those who can access a studio, Wilson argued. “The target market for Lululemon is a thirty-two-year-old single professional, and as soon as COVID ended, those people were bound to go and leave the home technical space.”
Wilson has a tumultuous relationship with Lululemon—he was forced out of the company not long after giving an interview to Bloomberg in 2013 where he suggested that recalled yoga pants were pilling because “some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for it.” But, he said, he still used to speak to McDonald, the CEO, about the business, and even product ideas, every six months until McDonald went “radio silent” near the beginning of 2021. He said the shift to virtual calls for annual general shareholder meetings meant he was “neutered” by the company board and that they avoid answering his questions, but he added that McDonald himself is a “good CEO.”
Other industry watchers share skepticism about the company’s tech strategy. The device makes a lot of sense as a brand extension for Lululemon and also as a way to sell more clothes, says Louis-Etienne Dubois, associate professor of creative industries management at Toronto Metropolitan University. But, at the same time, it’s a complete departure from its main business: clothing. Tech devices and subscriptions have different supply chains and require new customer service—which includes training employees to do tech support—and the profit margins are lower.
Dubois likens Mirror to a video game system. A PlayStation 5 retails for up to $950—not too far off Mirror’s price point, if you prefer first-person shooters to the downward dog. These devices always cause Sony to lose money out of the gate due to high production and development costs. Still, the company happily eats those losses because it makes a killing on games and its PlayStation Plus subscriptions. Lululemon was probably trying to implement a similar strategy, Dubois says. But this line of business comes with a substantial risk: if people don’t keep up their subscriptions, cash will continue to burn.
“I think that’s what they’re trying to do here—it’s just to put those things into people’s homes. And then hopefully they like it and they keep on buying those subscriptions,” he says. Lululemon probably didn’t foresee that the end of the pandemic would lead to a boost in demand for real-world experiences and away from big equipment purchases. On top of that, as subscription companies like Netflix have discovered, rising inflation now means that these ongoing expenses are often the first to end up on the chopping block when consumers tighten spending.
Lululemon may have also underestimated how much of a niche market holographic live workouts really are, Dubois says. “[Audiences are] looking for the cheaper alternatives out there,” he says. “Which, again, makes it tricky for Lululemon to be in the business of selling really, really expensive pieces of connected fitness.”
Lower than expected Mirror sales probably won’t become an existential problem for Lululemon. In 2021, the devices made up just 3 percent of total revenues. The company has recently cut the price of Mirror by half and offered a raft of incentives for signing up, ranging from discounts on other Lululemon purchases to free fitness classes at stores. Even so, the product’s future may be in doubt. Lululemon wrote off much of the value of the Mirror acquisition in an earnings report in March 2023, marking it down by $442.7 million—close to the $500 million it spent buying the company. “Mirror hardware sales during the holiday season came in below expectations,” Lululemon’s chief financial officer Meghan Frank said on the earnings call, and noted that they’re adding “a more efficient app-based model” with a lower subscription rate.
Szames notes the new Mirror memberships—recently rebranded as Lululemon Studio—now include discounts at partnering in-person workout studios, helping to make the experience more local. “It’s more of a full-rounded membership that they’re offering,” she says. The brand is going back to the yoga studio environments that served it so well in the past—the future will be less digital than it seemed in 2020.
Market research has shown that people generally value experiences over things, says Dubois. During the pandemic, people couldn’t go out and do much of anything, so products had to suffice. But now it’s back to experiences: travel, restaurants, sports, concerts, amusement parks, exercise classes. “When you’re working out in your living room, by yourself, even though it’s really cool—even though you get the sense of having a one-on-one workout—there’s hardly a sense of escapism,” he says.
It may just be bad luck that Lululemon was sending the opposite message when it started selling Mirror, a piece of workout equipment that emphasizes at-home individuality. The camaraderie of a real exercise class is part of the appeal of companies like CrossFit, SoulCycle, and, yes, Lululemon. Virtual experiences, no matter how impressive, still miss something vital. The sounds and the presence of other people, the feelings of suffering and succeeding together—these are not things that a glossy screen can yet replace.