How the Best Workplaces in Retail Are Shaking Up the Industry

November 7, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

Zoro is a nine-year-old retail company. But it is shaking up its market by acting more like an agile startup than an old-school seller of goods.

The Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based company is an online-only vendor, with a target market of businesses in search of products ranging from office supplies to power tools to landscaping equipment.

Zoro aims to give its business customers an experience more like consumer internet shopping. A variety of digital channels and a fast-growing product array are part of Zoro’s strategy. The company sells 3.1 million items, a tally expanding by about 100,000 each month.

Zoro’s annual revenues also are increasing, in the double-digit range, says company president Kevin Weadick.

He attributes this healthy growth in large part to Zoro’s culture.

“If I had to sum it up in three words, it would be ‘test, learn, scale,’” Weadick says.

Weadick isn’t kidding about the learning part. The 450-person company—a subsidiary of industrial supply firm Grainger—makes a point of treating errors not as blemishes on an employee’s record so much as opportunities for people and teams to get smarter. This means regularly sharing flub-ups and lessons learned. Not long ago, for example, a pair of Zoro employees shared the story of a digital ad campaign with the entire company. The campaign eventually proved effective. But in recounting the effort, the employees revealed the entire story, including stumbles along the way.

The warts-and-all disclosure was critical in sending the message that Zoro employees should keep experimenting, Weadick says.

“If you want to encourage risk-taking, when something doesn’t go as expected it’s really good to be open about it,” he says.

With this sort of transparency and focus on individual and collective development, it’s not surprising Zoro is on the 2019 list of the Best Workplaces in Retail. Research and analytics firm Great Place to Work just published this list in partnership with Fortune. Grocery store chain Wegmans Food Markets took the top spot in the category of large employers, meaning organizations with 1,000 or more employees. Publix, another grocery store chain, ranked second in the large employer segment, followed by auto retailer CarMax. In the small and medium company category, sock maker Bombas ranked first.

To determine the 2019 Best Workplaces in Retail, Great Place to Work analyzed confidential survey feedback representing nearly 700,000 employees working in retail in the United States. Employees responded to over 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a “Great Place to Work For All”—a workplace culture in which employees can reach their full potential, no matter who they are or what they do for the organization.

The retail industry overall continues to undergo disruptions related to advancing technology and changing consumer priorities. On the one hand, retailers feel pressure to match the convenience and customized experienced offered by and other shopping websites. Retailers also are responding to consumer desires to do business with stores that are sustainable— a term that not only includes positive treatment of the environment, but of workers as well. And many customers are seeking out shops that provide the counter to a faceless transaction—a deeply human connection with sales clerks and other customer representatives.

Wegmans, for example, has a reputation for excellent service. This distinction owes in large part to the friendly way employees interact with customers and to the organization’s emphasis on experimentation. Those features—which result in what Great Place to Work calls an Innovation By All culture—stem from an egalitarian, caring workplace experience.

There are similarities at Zoro. Despite its high-tech approach to sales, Zoro aims to preserve a down-to-earth, human touch in the way its employees work together. One example of this people-oriented culture was the way it generated company values a couple of years ago. All employees used Post-it notes to share their thoughts on what Zoro’s values should be, and then people discussed their thoughts with colleagues across the organization. Eventually those ideas were rolled up into several principles: “We are transparent,” “We Aspire to Be Customer Obsessed,” “We Take Ownership” and “We Win and Lose Together (We Prefer Winning).”

To celebrate the final language around the values, the company sponsored a massive rock-paper-scissors tournament. Those losing became fans of the person that beat them, until the entire staff was united behind the final winner.

Tiffany Peterson, e-commerce channel manager at Zoro, said the values activity was a great way to build connections with teammates she hadn’t met before.

Peterson also appreciates Zoro’s approach to mistakes. Not long ago, she benefited from the company’s emphasis on learning over punishment. While in charge of one of Zoro’s biggest sales channels, she made a change to the process for customer returns. Her adjustment made some sense at the time, but proved to be a “band-aid” that didn’t work well as sales through this partner increased.

She and colleagues had to revamp her initial fix. But, she says, they concentrated on solving the problem together “instead of it being a situation of pinning blame.”

That kind of forgiving, focused, flexible culture is helping Zoro to shake up the retail industry. 

“We’re going pretty fast,” Peterson says, “doing things people haven’t necessarily done before.”

See the full lists:

Ed Frauenheim is senior director of content at Great Place to Work and the co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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