How Zumiez Maintains a Healthy Culture

Zumiez Inc. is an American multinational clothing store founded in 1978, and publicly traded since 2005. The Lynnwood, Washington-based company specializes in apparel, footwear, accessories, and hardgoods for young people. With over 700 stores worldwide, Zumiez enjoys a very loyal following both with customers and its employees.

Such loyalty is a marker of a company with a very unique culture. “We’re cult-like,” says CEO Richard Brooks. “There’s a reason ‘cult’ is the first four letters of ‘culture’.

“That culture didn’t happen by accident. Founder Tom Campion, who is not only the chairman of the company but its heart and soul, created the culture Zumiez (pronounced “zoom-eez”) enjoys today.

“Our values are Tom’s,” Brooks explains. “He’s always believed that the culture of the company and the brand are completely interrelated, and the employees are a critical component of the consumer experience. It’s ironic, but investors don’t care about culture, all they want are results. But they should care because our culture is what makes us successful. We have shared values that are held generationally but lived daily. We hire for values, not skills. We can teach the skills…it’s pretty hard to teach values.”

While Zumiez is an edgy brand catering to a young audience that prizes individualism, it does face competition from other brands trying to do the same thing. What’s different about Zumiez is that it doesn’t operate like most retailers. It takes a decidedly decentralized and local approach, which is a big part of the unique culture.

“Most of our managers were promoted from within,” says Brooks. “We hire very few externally, and our turnover is far lower than industry averages. In fact, we’ve never had to do layoffs. That creates the family environment we enjoy, but also the local connection. Our managers are part of the community. They typically grew up nearby the store they run, they know many of the customers personally, and we give them autonomy to do what they think is right.”

“Here’s a small example,” continued Brooks. “Take the music playing in the store. Most retailers dictate what that will be across all stores, which is ridiculous. Different geographies have different tastes. We let the manager decide. When you are the same everywhere it gravitates to average. We want exceptional, local experiences, and that’s just one small element.”

This local connection is critically important to how the company operates. While the company operates with local autonomy, it does more than most to stay connected globally. “We gather our store managers together three times a year for a few days of meetings. That’s unheard of in retail because it’s very expensive. Most other retailers do that zero times a year,” said Brooks. “But we do it because it’s important. We believe in the collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the comradery it creates.” Another policy that garners employee loyalty—the managers of stores that perform well are not the only ones rewarded. Sales staff are rewarded and incented too, to include being invited to Zumiez’s annual employee event held at a ski resort in Colorado—a storied, hard-charging offsite.

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