Empowered employees separate Zumiez from the competition

Photo: Zumiez
Oct 03, 2017

Last week at the B. Riley 3rd Annual Consumer Conference, Chris Work, CFO of Zumiez, noted that three out of four key factors that separate the chain from competitors involve motivating employees.

Zumiez, with 693 stores, sells a broad mix of skateboard, snowboard, surf and streetwear brands.

At the conference, Mr. Work said the “Zumiez Competitive Advantage” begins first with “Culture,” and that involves finding employees driven by its “very incentive-based” pay system.

A Glassdoor review finds Zumiez pays a low base salary but offers commission and bonuses, including better hours and bigger discounts for top sellers.

“We look for people who fit the lifestyle,” said Mr. Work. “They’re passionate about what they do. They embrace competition. We’re going to reward success.”

A second differentiator is “Growth.” Rather than store expansion, that again refers to employees being offered opportunities for advancement. Most regional and district managers started on the sales floor. Said Mr. Work, “Even at our home office environment, we provide great opportunities for people and continue to challenge them.”

A third differentiator is “Zumiez University.” All of Zumiez’s store managers are brought together three times a year to provide “some recognition,” but the major focus is “intense training” including not only improving product knowledge but instruction on “how to be a leader, how to train your employees, how to operate in a great sales manner to serve the customer.”

The fourth differentiating factor — this one not directly involving staff — is “Unique,” which refers to the company’s efforts to support emerging and local brands.

Like many teen stores, Zumiez has been hurt in recent years by the shift to digital retailing, but the company recently scored its fourth-straight quarter of comp gains attributed in part to efforts to step up employee empowerment.

“We want the customer to come to Zumiez and have an engaging experience and have something different than they can feel online,” said Mr. Work. “And if we can empower our people to lead that and reward them, we think it’s a really successful long term approach.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s your ideal motivational package for store associates and managers? Do you think of Zumiez’s package of incentive-based compensation, advancement opportunities and extensive training hits all the important points?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It's time to get employees invested in the in-store experience. That's the biggest opportunity for retailers today."
"...we should bear in mind that this is a specific category with highly engaged shoppers and a lot of content and storytelling can take place."
"Meaningful staff incentives work. It’s been proven for decades."

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11 Comments on "Empowered employees separate Zumiez from the competition"

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Paula Rosenblum

I do think the package makes sense but, of them all, I think advancement opportunities are the most beneficial for all parties. Retail was probably the first “gig” economy, with a transient, fluid workforce with no fringe benefits. That needs to change. It’s time to get employees invested in the in-store experience. That’s the biggest opportunity for retailers today.

Art Suriano

I commend Zumiez for recognizing their employees and attempting to provide a better opportunity for them with compensation, motivation and rewards. Their 3.3 rating on Glassdoor and more than 60 percent of the employees recommending the company for employment shows that they have developed a healthy culture, which in retail is not easy and shows they are doing a lot of things right.

Any time you can make an employee feel appreciated and offer them opportunities for success with financial rewards; you’re going to have a winning formula. Zumiez seems to be doing that. However, when I look closely at the training, I have concerns that it focuses heavily on manager training and not enough on associate training. It’s difficult in today’s busy retail environment to have great success with peer- or buddy-led training at the store level. There are comments on Glassdoor addressing this issue. Hopefully, as Zumiez moves forward, they will take a look at how they train their store-level associates.

Seth Nagle

It sounds like Zumiez has figured out their ideal employee and built their incentives and company culture around it. Too many times companies and brands get lost in limbo and never find their identity, making it difficult for shoppers to set expectations.

Also after reviewing their incentives/programs I can’t help but notice them tapping into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and fulfilling them.

Adrian Weidmann

Congratulations to Zumiez! Empowering your employees to make the right decisions to support the customer’s shopping journey has proven valuable and well … empowering! I recently told a colleague that retailers at the very least shouldn’t ruin the shopper’s visit to the store. Most of the time employees actually make the entire experience worse. I believe that poor customer service is a primary reason people move to online shopping. We spend a lot of time on RetailWire sharing our opinions on improving retail. Retailers should start with the foundational premise to simply not make the shopper journey worse than if there were no employees in the store!

Finding employees that are motivated and empowered to represent the brand is exceptional. Finding methods to continually motivate and reward the best is unique and special.

Nir Manor

That’s a good example of a retailer that efficiently uses the human factor which is the main advantage of brick-and-mortar stores vis-à-vis online stores. An emphasize on choosing the right staff to communicate the message to the target shoppers, the right compensation that creates motivation and proper training produces results. However we should bear in mind that this is a specific category with highly engaged shoppers and a lot of content and storytelling can take place.

Kevin Graff

OK … it’s about time someone is giving the proper attention to the impact that store staff make on the shopping experience. Everyone gets so enamored by technology that staff get forgotten. Yet it’s the quality of the staff interaction with customers is the greatest differentiator for retailers. Products are nothing more than widgets. Price is a non-starter as someone will always undercut you. Big, bright shiny stores are the entry point and expected. So what’s left to separate a retailer from the pack? Staff. Period.

It’s the wise retailer who will invest in creating a better staff experience (encompassing everything from remuneration to training to coaching and leadership), and who will in the end win through creating better customer experiences.

Ken Silay

As a company, whether through store operations or IT or a combination of both, your goal is to make it as easy as possible for in-store employees to 1.) make money and advance and 2.) understand and serve their customers and know how to utilize all the tools available to make the first two happen.

Ralph Jacobson

Meaningful staff incentives work. It’s been proven for decades. Incentives must be relevant for the times and the culture of the retailer. With the short attention spans of retail employees, retailers need to be responsive to their lifestyles. I think this retailer is spot on.

Mel Kleiman

The overall package is right on for the people they hire because they hire people that fit their culture. A different culture will fail if they hire the same people.

The key here is to define your culture and hire people that fit that culture. It will reduce your turnover but it may not grow your sales.

The key at Zumiez is they have a very competitive culture and hire people who are very competitive.

Cristian Grossmann

Empowering frontline employees is more important than ever with the shift to digital retailing. Zumiez hits a lot of the key points, but “some recognition” should be stepped up. Extra incentives are great (and I like how they offer non-monetary ones as well like working better hours), but strong recognition should go along with it. This helps employees feel valued and offers inspiration for the rest of the team.

Jeff Miller

Zumiez has always done a great job connecting with employees and hiring young people who live and breath the lifestyle. Their 100K parties which I have had the pleasure to attend a few times back in the day that celebrate their team and culture are a great representation of the brand.

However, I am not sure that even the best and most motivated workforce in the world is going to save a retailer like Zumiez that is so tied into malls where foot traffic is going away and that sells surf, skate and snow brands who have not distinguished themselves from each other any more. I hope that I am wrong and that they continue to thrive while giving so many young people a first job where you can learn skills and see a better future through hard work.

"It's time to get employees invested in the in-store experience. That's the biggest opportunity for retailers today."
"...we should bear in mind that this is a specific category with highly engaged shoppers and a lot of content and storytelling can take place."
"Meaningful staff incentives work. It’s been proven for decades."

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