Retailer Feature: Zumiez Canada
** this interview was originally featured on CUT & SHOW on 25 May 2011
This week, we rang Doug Driscoll, the new Canadian stores operations manager of American retailer Zumiez. We talked to him about the company’s history, its expansion into the Canada and where its catchy name came from.
How did you get into the industry?
DD: There was a skate and snowboard shop in the Washington, DC area where I'm from and where I got a part-time job. I worked there throughout college, then graduated and started taking on more responsibility at the shop, ending up buying for the store's two locations. I was there for about four years and got a lot of good insight—the owner of that establishment, his father started SSL, which is a huge buying group in the United States. I was able to learn all of the ropes and to learn how the business operated, particularly in this industry. Then I kind of hit the ceiling.
Zumiez was coming out the Maryland—their east coast expansion had started. They opened up a store in Annapolis, Maryland, and I worked there for about six months, then moved up to Philly, where I ran their store for a bit. Subsequently, I became the district manager for New York. I've worked for Zumiez for about three and a half years now.
In a nutshell, Zumiez is a mall-based store that was founded in 1978. Tell us more.
DD: Zumiez started out in Seattle's Northgate Mall, which is just inside the city limits. It was founded by Tom Campion, who's a very passionate guy. These days, he's more in the background, mainly as the chairman of our board. Outside of that, he's much more involved with what's called the Campion Foundation, an environmental protection foundation. He's a big lobbyist, having kept George Bush out of drilling Alaska and helped protect wildlife spaces.
Zumiez went public in 2005—we've had some great successes from there. Financially, we've made some smart decisions. For instance, our CEO Rick Brooks recently took his first pay increase in 15 years. There are a lot of people who are passionate about this company—we try to create an environment of owners, really.
Where did the name come from, out of curiosity?
DD: It's sort of an urban legend. In 1978, we started as Above the Belt. We operated under that name until the early '90s. Then we decided to go in a different direction—you'll hear ten different stories if you ask ten different people about the Zumiez name, though!
Zumiez Park Royal (West Vancouver)
What brands do the stores carry? Zumiez seems to be very oriented toward the skate and boarding lifestyle.
DD: Certainly, it is. There's skate and snow and that active sort of lifestyle. Then there's a very large fashion part that goes into it. Our key demographic is 16-years-old to 24-years-old. We try to stay ahead of trends; the juniors and girl's market has definitely been a tricky one for the last couple of years, with the "throwaway fashion" mentality. We've made some aggressive moves in that area—we brought on a woman who worked with Roxy for years, and she's really turned the junior's department around in two and a half years.
The shoe wall at Zumiez Coquitlam Centre
As far a brands, there's a large assortment. Our biggest brands, as far as clothing goes, would be Volcom, OBEY, LRG and KR3W, which are the ones you'll see in almost every location. We're doing a lot better in terms of regional buying, so you're starting to see regionally-driven brands in our stores, which can be a tricky game for sure. We have a strong buying team that's great at what they do, and we're launching a new assortment program at the end of this year.
How did you, as a retailer, stay strong in the tough economical times that have since begun to pass?
DD: We knew it was a really unfortunate circumstance for the country and for the world, but we were in financially stable place. We're a zero-debt company, and we've operated that way since 1978. So that's one thing that helped! The other thing was that we just made responsible fiscal decisions—we cut back on our openings, we made wiser decisions on how we spent our money and we looked at the turmoil as an opportunity to bring on better people [who may have lost their jobs in the industry] and essentially shed a lot of our competition.
We were at about 290 stores in 2007, when the economic storm hit, and we're at 400 now. We didn't skip a beat, we stayed true to our plan and we didn't deviate. The biggest thing was that we didn't sacrifice our pricing or margins to try to buy a customer. Having said that, it is a little bit easier for us to do that because our customer is 16-years-old to 24-years old; they're out working a part-time job and not losing money in the stock market. We said, listen, why would we change what we've done for the last 25 years, even though the economic climate is changing? There were some tough parts to that, and we definitely saw some sales losses because of it at first, but we came out stronger and were able to provide opportunity to those in the industry who were losing jobs and positions at companies that couldn't weather the storm.
What prompted the Canada expansion?
DD: It's been something we've wanted to do—the international market is something we see as a great challenge. The first step is Canada; it's a way to dip a toe in the water to see if this is something we can do successfully.
Vancouver is two hours north of our operations, so it's not a far move, either. The other thing is that Canada aligns with our brand strongly; action sports are huge up there, and Canada has that Zumiez lifestyle not only in Vancouver, but in Toronto and Calgary. It seems like the right call.
How many stores will be opening?
DD: Currently, the plan is between 80 and 100 on a five-year plan, give or take. But if things are going well, than that number will grow.
What are some major differentiations that you see between the U.S. and Canadian market, and how will those affect what brands Zumiez offers?
DD: The biggest thing is we want to make sure to keep it as Canadian a business as possible. I'm the only U.S. employee that will be relocating to Canada; all the rest of the positions will be Canadian-hired. The difference isn't necessarily what is bought or purchased. From what I've seen or the feedback I've gotten from other U.S. retailers that have moved into Canada is that the Canadian population is a consuming population. They love to buy, but it's also done in a more relaxed, mellow mindset. In the U.S., it's very fast-paced: buy, buy, buy and push. That's not going to work in Canada, and we understand that. For us, the biggest change will be identifying what those buying trends are and because we're going through Canadian distributors and hiring people in Canada, we'll be getting that insight quickly.
How important is the online and social media world to Zumiez, taking into consideration your demographic?
DD: Our marketing strategy as whole is very organic, very grassroots. We don't throw a lot of money at things, and we don't sponsor riders or things of that nature. If we're going to spend money on something, we want to give it to our customers and to our people—we'll do things like free events for our customers.
We started an interactive marketing coordinator position about a year and a half ago, and it's really taken off and we're definitely catching up. We recognize the importance of online. For example, we were looking at e-commerce and noticed that there didn't seem to be as much of a focus put on it as in the States. As a retail business, you have to have a website and you have to have presence on the web. For us, e-commerce has been a huge producer for the last four years. We're not going to force anything, though. We're not going to say, oh, this works in the States, so it will definitely work in Canada. We're going to get up there and learn, then take the right steps rather than jumping in and fixing it later.
I know that a few major brands in Canada have either made moves or are making moves toward e-commerce, like lululemon and Aritzia. They, too, have realized the importance of e-commerce.
DD: Sure, and lululemon is a great example. They've successfully and intelligently entered the U.S. market—how they've done it is how we'd love to do it. Nothing's forced, everything is in the right place and they're in the right areas. We'd also like to create a culture or concept about us and grow it from there.
Are you opening first on the west coast, then east coast?
DD: Yes. I have two stores opening at the end of April, which is creeping up fast! We open Park Royal and Coquitlam about a week apart, then I open six stores in Toronto this summer. Then I head back to the west to open Metropolis and potentially one more in the Greater Vancouver area.
Zumiez Coquitlam Centre
Is Montreal a market Zumiez is also thinking of cracking?
DD: We definitely understand that it's a very different place to do business. Again, we want to make sure we understand how and why things operate the way they do there.
And perhaps learn a little French?
DD: [laughs] Right! That's one of the things we'd have to learn. If I were to operate there, I'd have to speak French. But that's very cool to me, and we as a company get excited at things that are a challenge. Probably next would be Alberta and, of course, focusing on Ontario and BC.
And you'll be doing the trade show circuit up here, too, correct?
DD: Yes. Our Canadian buying manager is great, and he's been with us for a long time. He's gone to KNOW?SHOW and a few more up there. Like I said previously, all buying up north is going through Canadian distributors.
We want to support the Canadian economy and be respectful. I say to the people that I hire for Canada: we're going to make something here, not repeat something.
For more information about Zumiez or to say hi to Doug, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
- May Globus