Zumiez’s Fireside Chat

Rick Brooks, Zumiez’s CEO and CFO Trevor Lang held a half hour question and answer session today at the Thomas Weisel Partners Consumer Conference in New York. Previously, Zumiez had announced on September 2nd that “…total net sales for the four-week period ended August 29, 2009 decreased 2.9% to $51.7 million, compared to $53.2 million for the four-week period ended August 30, 2008. The company’s comparable store sales decreased 12.1% for the four-week period, versus a comparable store sales increase of 0.2% in the year ago period.” Their comps for September were positive.

They started by defining themselves as an action sports lifestyle retailer (duh) and went on to explain what you had to do to be one. To Zumiez, that means you have to carry hard goods and all the brands (not only in hard goods) that you find in independent shops. They characterized their customer as “very smart” and as knowing what’s authentic and what’s not. Those customers are 12 to 24 years old and more male than female.

They focus on making their employees people who are living the lifestyle and they try to build a distinct culture that empowers these young people to localize product for their stores and create a vibe around it.
Their description of their business makes perfect sense. It also leads me to two questions. The first is what does it mean to be an action sports company? That’s a strategic question for every brand and retailer in this industry and one, I have to admit, for which I don’t have a good answer. That label, which has been around a long, long, time, might be seen to suggest that we are the same industry now that we were 15 years ago. But we’re not. If only because of the breadth of distribution and the number of non participants who buy our products we’re a lot different. I guess I’m not against the term as long as you don’t fall into the trap of thinking it means the same now as it did then.
The second question is more focused on Zumiez, but not only for them to think about. As they create this focused culture of cool kids who are committed to and invested in the lifestyle, are they defining themselves in a way that might restrict their growth or their attractiveness to certain consumers?
The answer, of course, is yes, they are. But every company decides who they want their customers to be and what they want to mean to them. Or at least they should. And any company that tries to be meaningful to everybody probably ends up meaningful to nobody. Unless, I guess, they are an electrical utility, for example. Interestingly, I wonder if Zumiez hasn’t helped themselves manage this issue by being mall based.   They can work to make their stores what they consider core while at the same time exposing themselves to a much broader spectrum of potential customers in an environment that is not intimidating to those customers.
Zumiez noted that their smaller brands are continuing to gain share and specifically that brands need to be careful with distribution and how quickly they grow. They indicated they hadn’t seen any bankruptcies from any of these brands and hadn’t had to do anything special for any of them because of financial difficulties.
I have been arguing for a while now that current economic conditions represent an opportunity for new and small brands. It appears Zumiez agrees with me.
One of the questioners noted that Zumiez use to talk about an operating margin target in the low to mid teens and asked if that was still a reasonable objective. Zumiez indicated it was, though not in the current environment. They said they were growing selling, general and administrative expenses at half the rate they had been before and spending $85,000 less on each store. Because of these adjustments, they think they can get to those margins with less sales per square foot, but not until sales turn around.
To me, that sounded like an acknowledgement that they have no expectation of sales returning to previous growth rates in the foreseeable future, an assumption I agree with.
Zumiez’s growth plans are somewhat restricted right now, and management pointed to the failure of landlords to be more realistic about the rents they could expect as a major reason for this. My belief is that the commercial real estate market is going to get worse before it gets better, and I expect Zumiez will eventually get the cooperative landlords it needs to open more stores. They seem to think so too, as they acknowledged the “capacity rationalization” (what a benign sounding term for something that can be so difficult) that was going on not just in action sports but in all retail sectors. In other words, we’ve got too many retailers and too much retail space
The last thing I’ll mention that really caught my attention was their description of how they were working with individual brands on strategies that were appropriate for them. They might, for example, ask a brand to explore a new product or category where Zumiez saw an opportunity. I don’t know how much of that they’re doing, but that guidance could be really useful for a smaller brand and might explain why Zumiez is having success with such brands.