A Sustainable Competitive Advantage: The Zumiez 100K

I have written before about the value of Zumiez’s hiring, training, and promotion process. They take kids with a passion for the activities and brands their stores sell, train them, support them, make them compete with their peers, and promote the ones who succeed. The average age of store managers is something like 23 and pretty much all their district and regional managers started out as sales people in a store. 

This approach to culture and staffing is so important to them that it’s been allowed to impede their growth plans when they couldn’t identify enough good people to staff new stores. In hindsight, I imagine they are thrilled that happened given the way the environment for brick and mortar is evolving.
Anyway, it’s easy to read SEC filings and intellectualize about this, but when you walk into the annual 100K party at Keystone, where the company’s best sales people are celebrated, you look up and see a sustainable competitive advantage staring you right in the face. That’s never happened to me.  The fact that I was afraid I was the oldest person in a room of 1,300 only dampened my enthusiasm a bit.
A competitive advantage is only sustainable if none of your competitors can duplicate it. I suppose somebody else could do what Zumiez does, but they’d better get started. They’re 30 plus years behind.
I’m guessing most of the Zumiez sales people don’t read my column. If they wrote one I’d sure as hell read it to find out what brands were succeeding. If they did read it, I’d tell them how lucky they are to have jobs involved with something they love (hell, maybe just to have jobs), solid support and training, the opportunity to advance based on performance and, if they want it, a career.
And finally, I’d tell them what a great thing it is to be part of something that can support and validate them. Without getting too deep into generational history (read this book if you are curious what I’m talking about), let’s just say that this is a group of young people who are going to have to pull together to solve some big problems not of their making. I’m seeing it with my own kids (they don’t work at Zumiez) as they form groups and relationships outside of the immediate family that involve strong personal bonds. I see it where I went to college, where the number of students who return for reunions are much larger than they ever were in my generation.
So the environment Zumiez has created not only works for these young people, but for Zumiez as well and is consistent with the way generations turn over and repeat themselves in our society over decades. And it has significant implications for how any brand markets itself today.
But, as usual, I digress. Back at the 100K, the introduction of brand founders was particularly interesting. In groups (there’s a lot of them), they march founders out on stage and give each one a chance to say a few words. Somebody told me they’d meant to bring a decibel meter to measure the applause each brand got (or didn’t get). That would have been brilliant. I would love to publish that list with the noise levels listed.
Among the brands that got the loudest cheers were brands that are urban, or youth culture, or whatever word you want to use. But they were definitely not action sports brands. Not to say that some action sports brands weren’t well received, but I thought the reception of the various brands was a good indication of how the industry is evolving.

It is true that a deeply imbedded, successful culture can be destructive to a company if the culture resists evolving with the competitive and economic environment. I can’t say for certain that Zumiez (or any other company) won’t someday have that problem.  But Zumiez can minimize that potential by just letting the young sales force that is part of its target demographic drive brand selection and be the arbiter of what’s “cool.”  If they do that I think this competitive advantage can continue to be sustainable.  That’s a hell of thing and unusual in our industry.



6 replies
  1. Bill Byrne
    Bill Byrne says:

    Nicely written. Never had the opportunity to attend, but a lot of my clients have told me it’s a blast.

    I’m interested to hear what brands do you feel had the best reception outside of the entrenched board-sport guys?

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Bill,
      You know, there were a lot of brands who’s founders had a few seconds to speak. I didn’t take notes, didn’t have a way to measure the applause, and am reluctant to conclude who had the best reception just based on that. Because I don’t think it would be accurate. The rest of the time was just wandering around, talking to people, having a drink (though not much at 10,000 feet) and a good time.

      Hope you understand.


  2. Jay Wilson
    Jay Wilson says:

    A good source of brands acceptance and sales can be found at Action Watch .. you have to subscribe.
    They lift sales info from scanned goods going out the door. Jay

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