evo: 2011 TransWorld Business Overall & Hardgoods Retailer Of The Year

evo President Atsuko Tamura

We asked brands and reps for their top nation wide accounts for Shop of the Year and Hardgoods Retailer of the Year and Seattle’s evo was the resounding favorite in both categories across all sports. We caught up with President Atsuko Tamura to hear about the strategies and business philosophies that earned them these prestigious awards.

Tell us a little about your store, how long its been around, what brands you carry, and who your customers are.
We've been in business since 2011, and opened the store in October, 2005 in the Fremont neighborhood, an art, cultural, and lifestyle boutique retail community in Seattle.  We carry all of the same product brands that we feature on our site – evo.com.  In our store, we also carry a more culled assortment of mens and womens streetwear, for example a few casual footwear brands, so that we can offer products that support both the activity and lifestyle needs of our customers.

On the hard goods side we carry well known brands like K2, Lib, Capita, Union, and Burton to name a few.  We also carry new and high growth brands Jones, Bataleon, Never Summer and 32.  We always try to introduce new brands to keep our assortment fresh and interesting, and so that it offers our customers a broad range of alternatives.  On the technical outerwear side, we take a similar approach in that we offer established outerwear brands like Burton, Oakley, and The North Face, but carry newer specialty brands like Holden, 686 and Armada.  We've also rounded out our accessories assortment by adding brands like Spy and Electric while continuing to grow brands like Smith.  Over the last few years in particular, we've added a lot of streetwear from great brands like RVCA, Obey, Quiksilver, and Volcom.  Having these brands resonates with the action sports customer and to evo, and offers the full breath of product that speaks to the action sports lifestyle customer.

Our store shoppers range from very experienced skiers and snowboarders, to those who are just starting out, and, many who actually like to do both.  People see us as a reliable specialty shop  who they count on to offer the broadest and most complete assortment of everything they need – hardgoods, technical outerwear and accessories, and most importantly, be met and serviced by our awesome employees who are knowledgeable and passionate about what they love to do, and are fun, approachable, and helpful.  We get so many comments both about our store employees and our customer care team that we are great at listening, caring and outfitting our customers.  Another point about the breadth of our customers is that it's not skewed by gender or age – we have  a lot of men and women shoppers of all ages, as well as families with both young kids and teen agers who shop, and often times the whole family finds something they like.

It's interesting – you were the runner up in the Northwest, but you won the overall retailer and hardgoods retailer on a national basis – what do you think that says about your reach and what you've been doing this year?

To address the Northwest comment, of course we want to be #1, and we strive to be the leader everywhere and especially in our own neck of the woods.  That said, we have some amazing competitors right in our own backyard who do things really well – everything from brands they carry and how they are featured, knowledgeable staff, and accessibility as well as being long-standing retail brands with a lot of loyalty.  Competition is good – it keeps us all healthy and striving more for both our customers and the overall industry.  And it means more people out there enjoying what we love to do.

What's really exciting to us is this national recognition.  Wow. Our whole team had a similar reaction: a humble but stoked "wow!"   This recognition means a ton to us – we've worked really hard to build our brand in a way that could have the broadest reach to action sports enthusiasts – everywhere.  We've invested in building the elements of our brand that are important: commerce, culture, community and cause.  We've done things to drive traffic to our site through things like our domain switch from evogear.com to evo.com, featuring our store location and events held there, we've delivered better content through social mediums like our blog and facebook, and we've amped up our email program to communicate with both local Seattle base customers and on a national level.  This year, we introduced a new marketing tool for us – a direct mail piece which is our first catalog, which served as another medium to tell the evo story.  We also had our 10-year Anniversary party in October which generated a lot of press for us.  We're known for being a gathering place in the community – locally, with our vendor partners, other business partners, customers and employees.  Our anniversary party attendance and attention was a pure demonstration of that.

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What's the most rewarding thing about working with your brands and customers this year?
After getting through some significant challenges as a result of the economy and from our own set of growth pains, our brand and culture were even more clear and intact for us.  The most encouraging thing during those times was the support and confidence we had from our vendors who believed in us by giving us access to great product, and in the loyalty of our customers who continued to buy from us.  Speaking of the last year in particular, the most rewarding thing has been to be able to build both strategies and product assortment strategies together with our vendors – including what new lines to offer as well as being a place for vendors to come with excess inventory.  We've also been able to open new accounts who we couldn't before for a variety of reasons, and to be able to carry them in our assortment tells us we're doing something right to earn their trust.  All of that work allows us to deliver an authentic, broad range and fun mix of products for our customers at all levels of participation.

What's your philosophy on the role of core retailers?
The term "authentic" is used and heard a lot – it's one thing to say it, it's another to really live into it.  Core retailers, or specialty retailers, have the privilege, responsibility and challenge of not only offering the most current, innovative and relevant product, but, to support that with knowledgeable, approachable, service oriented employees and product information that will help the customers make the best decision they can.  It means staying true to your roots, but also being wise in knowing how and when to evolve with the industry and business, particularly in introducing new categories.  By paying attention to the customer and the product design and direction, and, staying actively  involved at the participation level, evolving and staying "core" is not only possible, but it's a necessity.   Staying authentic can be hard, but it's a lot of fun and worth the effort.

What do you think makes your shop different?
As a growing multi-channel specialty retailer, our store in Seattle delivers on multiple aspects of our brand.  What makes it different from other shops is the overall experience – whether it's the product assortment, the staff, the merchandising, or events.  From the beginning, evo's blurred the line between ski and snowboard, so whatever your board of choice, we offer it.  We want people to get on the hill and share that awesome experience, regardless of they ride or ski; and we've got the product, expertise and fun that comes with it.  It's easy these days to find just about anything in a retail store.  Our buying team is constantly challenged with looking for the next best trending product or style to add to a solid foundation of proven brands.  That helps our assortment remain interesting and different.  We also spend a lot of time recruiting and training our staff – both regular and seasonal employees – and work hard to provide amazing customer service.  The store merchandising and visual presentation utilizes materials that are found or repurposed, which gives it a really unique flavor in how the store unfolds and product is displayed.  Also unique to our store is that we dedicate space for our full time gallery where we feature artists and photographers along with their bios and in person openings that coincide with the community art walk that happens each month.  We are also well known for throwing some incredible events, ranging from movie premiers to live concerts in our store, to supporting our community by being a venue for organizations to hold fund raisers, and sharing our proceeds from events to support local causes.

Why do you think your brands nominated you for this award?

We have built lasting, open relationships with our brand partners from the time evo started, and that continues.  We view our vendor partners as that – "partners", rather than just a "vendor", to work together in our respective roles to build each other's brands and together, grow the industry.  Our vendor partners see evo as being a specialty retailer and trust us to represent their products and brands in a way that enhances them. They have also seen us evolve and execute the multi-channel vision that we laid out for them in 2005 when we opened the store, offering a mix of product that truly represents the lifestyle while also establishing evo as an anchor in the community.

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Tell us a little about your approach to selling hardgoods that makes you stand out on this front?
We really try our best to pay attention to the customer's needs – listening, understanding, and informing them of the options.  We see this as much more than closing a sale.  It's important to be able to relate to customers on a personal level to really get at the heart of what they want and need – ranging from experience level, financial appetite and their personal style and taste.  Being conscious of and respectful of those things is super critical to building trust and helping the customer not just find but love and use what they end up buying.  When it comes to end use, for example, having the ability to relate and remember what your first day, rail, drop or even a concussion felt like can go a long way in helping a customer believe they are understood.  To help develop product knowledge, we believe it's important to "experience" it too.  With that in mind, we encourage our staff to get up on the hill, demo days, and offer a gear-binding set up each year for them to test and try, and then share their knowledge both at the store and on the website.

What have been the biggest highlights and lowlights of 2011?
Our fiscal year ends in March, so thinking back over 2011, one of our biggest highlights is that we had record breaking sales and margin, delivering a sustainable profit – and during an economically difficult time.  We also successfully completed a refinancing effort and recapitalized our balance sheet.  All of that work made it possible for us to have a bunch of operational highlights, which may seem "not sexy" but as a growing business, they were much needed investments.  Examples include a new call center and phone system, moving our headquarters staff under one roof, launching multi-channel gift cards in time for holiday, investing heavier in existing brands and expanding in newer categories like streetwear, and mailing our first catalog in time for this Winter season.

Lowlights…hmmm…we all have lowlights!  This was such a year of highlights that it's hard to find some lowlights.  And with every lowlight, there is a highlight that overrides it so it really is tough to call them out without an explanation that ends up sounding like a highlight.  With that caveat, we aren't perfect so we have our fair share.  We've had operational challenges that come with growth – such as, underestimating staffing levels to meet the demands of store traffic, not having the most efficient or timely product replenishment process from our warehouse that serves our web orders and store fulfillment, and a slow, cold summer season that put us behind plan heading into winter.  The good news is, these are all problems that come from a growing business and we are quick to react to them.

Ending on a highlight, our employee team worked so hard, and accomplished so much.  And with all of the hard things thrown our way, our values and culture remain firmly intact – and even stronger.  Now, it's game-on time for the business, and we're eager for La Nina to show herself!

This year was tough for core retailers. What have been the keys to your success through the recession and what have you done differently than in year's past?

We've been able to lean into our ability to sell both value and top of the line, full price products, which has helped us better manage our margins.  We were also conservative in our inventory plans, but left enough room to invest in categories or styles that took off, as well as room to push slow moving product by negotiating markdowns with vendors and balancing it with fast turning product – a lot of basic retail moves.  In some ways, our stage of growth was a little different than longer established retailers so while many had negative growth, we were still experiencing double-digit and profitable growth rates overall as a company, and also at our store location.  In some ways the recession seemed to affect consumers in a way that really focused their shopping behavior, meaning people who really love action sports still looked for and spent money on the best gear and sometimes apparel, for their needs – and probably ate out less.

What are your predictions for 2012?

If this year brings another amazing Winter, will there be a third?  We hope so!  We anticipate another year of healthy profitable growth as a company and further solidifying our desire to be the leading specialty retailer in action sports.  As a specialty retailer, we've got to keep the "special" in specialty.  To do that, we know that it becomes increasingly important for us to remain rock solid in our identity, our product assortment, providing awesome service, and both anticipating and exceeding our customers' expectations.  Our prediction is that it will become harder and with that, we need to stay focused, nimble, scrappy, and one step ahead of the next guy.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Just a THANK YOU to our vendor partners and others who voted for us, and for Transworld who has really given us a lot of love. Not sucking up, but we are humbled, but even more revved up to keep growing and having a positive impact on action sports and our customers.