The Everett retailer plans to open about 50 new stores this year and soon will launch a customer loyalty program nationwide

Share story

In all but two of the past 16 months, teen-clothing chain Zumiez has shredded the industry norm for sales growth at major U.S. retailers.

Last month, Zumiez posted a 10.1 percent increase in sales at stores open more than a year, well above an average gain of just 0.6 percent for 22 chains tracked by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

And even when Zumiez fell short of the norm, its own tough comparisons were partly to blame. This past October, the Everett company came in with a subpar rise of 3.3 percent, but that was on top of a 21.5 percent gain the year before.

So what gives?

Analyst Sharon Zackfia, who follows Zumiez for William Blair & Co. in Chicago, would like to know herself.

“Probably the question we get asked the most is, what is Zumiez doing? I mean, why are their sales trends so good?” she said on a recent earnings call with Zumiez executives.

Chief Financial Officer Marc Stolzman, who acknowledged no “incredible secret sauce,” replied that Zumiez stays on top of the latest trends and works closely with its vendors to keep the most popular merchandise in stock.

“It really is just about a lot of hard work, a lot of really close attention to detail,” he said.

Founded in 1978, Zumiez (pronounced “zoomies”) sells skateboarding- and snowboarding-style clothes, shoes and accessories at more than 440 stores in the U.S. and Canada. A key differentiator is the array of brands carried in its stores, which can give the appearance of an independent skate shop.

“There’s a lot of choice, and you’re not necessarily going to look like everybody else,” said Jennifer Black, a Lake Oswego, Ore., retail analyst who advises large institutional investors. “Also, a lot of vendors will do a special makeup for them, so it’ll be stuff you can’t find at other places.”

Although Zumiez emerged from the recession better than most retailers, it was hardly immune to the economic misery of the past few years. Parents were loathe to splurge on new graphic tees or skinny jeans for their teenaged children, and young customers struggled to find work amid rampant joblessness.

Sales at stores open more than a year — a key measure of a retailer’s health because growth from new locations is excluded — plunged as much as 19 percent in the second quarter of 2009.

Not until 2010 did quarterly results begin to grow again on a year-over-year basis. The past three months marked Zumiez’ ninth straight quarter of same-store sales increases.

“What a great 2011 we had,” CEO Rick Brooks said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday in Everett.

Despite a sluggish economy, today’s retail winners “are gaining market share,” he said, while others struggle or go out of business. “We’re just gaining share.”

After curtailing new store openings in 2009 and 2010, Zumiez plans to open about 50 additional stores this year, including 10 in Canada, which would be in line with last year’s growth of 44 new locations.

Another bright spot is the e-commerce business. Zumiez’ website accounted for 7.3 percent of sales last year, up from 4.7 percent in 2010.

The company reported last week that its first-quarter profit more than doubled to $4.5 million, or 14 cents a share, up from $1.9 million a year ago. While that was better than expected, Zumiez said its second-quarter profit would be hurt by $1.8 million in moving expenses.

Over the weekend, Zumiez moved its e-commerce fulfillment operations from Everett to Edwardsville, Kan., hoping to speed up the delivery of its online orders.

Zumiez, which employs about 170 people in Everett, also plans to move to a new headquarters building near Alderwood mall in Lynnwood, where it will occupy nearly four times as much office space. “It’ll give us room to grow,” Brooks said.

Before the earnings report, shares of Zumiez had risen 33 percent to $35.16 since the start of the year. The stock closed Wednesday at $34.74, up 81 cents and near the upper end of a 52-week trading range between $15.85 and $38.99.

Looking ahead, Zumiez plans to launch a new loyalty program nationwide after an ongoing test in the Midwest. Called Stash, it rewards customers not only for making purchases, but also for engaging with Zumiez on Facebook and Twitter and attending its events. Rewards include limited-edition apparel and autographed skate decks.

If Zumiez has a secret sauce, it might just be its customer service. Black noted that Zumiez motivates its sales clerks by promoting from within and annually treating top sellers to a snowboarding trip to Keystone, Colo.

“It’s the Nordstrom of the teen world,” she said. “They’re totally into motivating their employees and giving them an opportunity, whether they have college degrees or not. The whole point is for kids to relate to the kids.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or