by Stephen Garner
Joe Kudla

After Vuori founder and CEO Joe Kudla decided to close all five of his retail stores San Francisco, Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach, Del Mar, and Encinitas on March 13th, a few days prior to the mandatory closures of non-essential businesses in California, he immediately began devising a plan to keep his business moving.

Of course, the closure of a store typically spells unemployment for anyone working there. Vuori’s 39 retail employees, however, were “redeployed” in an effort to accomplish company-wide goals.

The leadership team (which includes former Lululemon executive Catherine Pike as senior director of retail) got proactive by implementing training and development programs that aim to improve operations across Vuori’s brick-and-mortar locations in the post-pandemic world.

Additionally, and with the personal skills and interests of each team member taken into consideration, Kudla and Pike examined every corner of the business to identify which areas retail employees might supplement while stores remain closed.

Since then, Vuori’s retail employees have undergone extensive training across product development, production, store management, and other key aspects of the company. The goal is for these employees to, when safe, return to their stores and essentially be able to function as that branch’s general manager.

Aside from these in-depth training sessions, the retail staff has also had the opportunity to become involved in other sectors of the company based on their skill sets and long-term career goals. For example, a handful of store associates have marketing aspirations, so they’ve been assisting Vuori’s marketing team with new projects for which the staff previously lacked manpower.

Here, we catch up with Kudla to discuss how the Coronavirus is affecting his business and to learn more about the redeployment of his retail staff.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your business? Are you seeing a lot of traction online?

A: Our e-commerce business has grown close to 400 percent over the prior year since going into the lockdown.  Some products that are really resonating with customers and how they are living their lives during the lockdown are seeing growth of over 1,000 percent over the same period.  While our wholesale and retail sales have suffered, we are fortunate to have an e-commerce business that is more than making up for the loss of revenue.

Q: What do you think post-pandemic retail will look like?

A: Customer behavior changes will drive the need for retailers to modify and update their physical environment, communication, and service strategies. There will also be great opportunities for retailers to innovate around customization and new unique experiences only available in-store to differentiate from e-commerce and celebrate the unique feeling from in-person shopping.

Q: How are you planning for this?

A: Commitment to being nimble and knowing we do not have all the answers but have shown that we can and will adapt as we progress through reopening. Starting with the health and safety of our people and customers and then looking at our physical environments to make necessary adjustments for distancing and contact avoidance. 

Q: How are you implementing these new training sessions?

A: Retail associates training sessions are daily. two hours of content delivered followed by one hour of putting the learning into practice through quizzes, project work, and group role plays (all via video conferencing). The topics change daily and cover all segments of the retail business (operations, product, service, sales, merchandising) and also include sessions from other HQ departments. 

Q: What challenges or learnings have you made with the re-deploying of your retail workers?

A: It is challenging during a fast-paced time to slow down and take the time to train and bring in new team members to departments. We now have 5 retail associates working in customer service and although we had to slow down to speed up we now have an even stronger support team in place to handle the increased volume we are experiencing in that department. 

Q: Any interesting anecdotes or stories on how the new training has gone?

A: The associates have been joking that they are officially enrolled at Vuori University during store closures meaning that they are getting an education in all things Vuori in this remote environment. We have worked to make this experience really well rounded so that associates are not just learning how to be the absolute best at service and sales for our stores but also getting exposure to things that will help them set career goals and address the uncertainty that we are all in. One part of the program has been completing Yale’s course, the Science of Wellbeing, which is a course on happiness and hosting discussions in peer groups. In other sessions lead by department heads we are giving associates the opportunity to learn more about future opportunities in roles at HQ and letting them know this a place where they can grow. In a session with our creative director, Mark Tesi, associates got a behind the scenes look at his work and the opportunity to ask advice about art school choices, photography goals and how to apply skills from their work in-store toward their goals in his department.

We see the time and money invested in this experience as playing the long game because we are bringing Vuori’s unique culture to our retail teams in ways we never have before.