How Maurices Faced Down Covid-19 and Won

Expert Interviews
July 13, 2020
Zipline Staff Contribution

No retailer was prepared for Covid-19. But, some were able to navigate the uncharted waters better than others. A great example is maurices, an American women's clothing retail chain with more than 900 stores based in Duluth, Minnesota. Although the pandemic challenged the team operationally, they were able to flex muscles they didn’t know they had to come out stronger than before in terms of skills, culture and business results.

Kacie Ulsh was on the front-lines at maurices when Covid-19 hit North America. As Director of Field Experience, she was tasked with making decisions that she never thought she would have to make, including closing stores and furloughing employees. As she formulated her strategies, she realized how challenging it was going to be. She explains, “Fast decision making is part of our culture but, like so many companies, we didn’t have the right systems in place. We struggled with communication. It took a lot of time and effort just to get simple messages out.” 

At first, maurices attempted to use the tools that they had on hand to communicate with stores but found it wasn’t adequate for the level of communication they needed for a number of reasons: The intranet solution required VPN, which meant employees had no mobile access and people couldn’t access it from home; Headquarters had no visibility into who had received a message and who hadn’t; They couldn’t update communications that they had sent out, or segment by role or location.

Kacie sums up the problem by saying, “Essentially, every communication was sent to everyone, creating a lot of noise and stress for our employees who were just trying to understand what was going on and what was expected of them.” Instead of communication solving problems, it was creating new ones.

Looking back, Kacie recognizes that these struggles weren’t new. She says, “These challenges always existed but Covid-19 shone a spotlight on the issues. The good news is that we used urgency around Covid-19 to build a strong business case for finally getting the right tools in place.” With a global pandemic as a backdrop, maurices moved forward with Zipline.

Even though maurices rolled Zipline out while stores were closed, it proved to be the glue that held store teams together during the pandemic. As stores closed, Zipline allowed furloughed field employees - 8000 strong - to stay on top of news about openings. Kacie says, “I am so thankful that we had Zipline when stores were closed. It allowed us to create connectedness with a dispersed population of employees.” 

Then, when maurices began to reopen stores, Zipline was the channel used to bring back furloughed employees. Kacie says, “Because we maintained communication with our employees during furlough, we retained and returned an incredibly high percentage of our leaders. In fact, we had single digit turnover.”

Maurices also used Zipline to store documentation around new practices and sanitization standards, which meant those same furloughed employees had visibility into their new operating procedures well before returning to work. Zipline gave employees the assurance that maurices was taking steps to make things easier on them when stores reopened. 

When maurices got word that it was safe to reopen, Kacie faced the onerous task of rapidly reopening stores in waves, depending on where the stores were located. Ninety percent of the fleet, or about 900 stores, were up and running within six weeks. Kacie says, “There are lots of logistics in getting six waves of stores up at different time frames and we couldn’t have done it without Zipline.”

Unlike maurice’s old communications solution, Zipline was built for targeted communication. Headquarters was able to send different communication by role and by location. Feedback loops in Zipline also allowed maurices to improve execution, with each subsequent wave of reopening happening faster and with stronger results. Kacie says, “We expected a plateau in the results but the opposite was true. Because we were continually learning and sharing feedback, we kept getting better.”

Just when Kacie thought she was out of the woods with reopening, civil unrest began affecting stores. Kacie recalls, “When it became clear that some of our locations were in harm’s way, it was essential to get emergency closing information to stores in real-time. Again, we wouldn’t have been able to do that with our old systems but because Zipline is optimized for mobile, it was easy to send messages and ensure they were received and read.”

For all stores today, employee and customer health is top of mind. Prior to Covid-19, maurices chose to focus on service and customer experience rather than compliance. But with Zipline in place, Kacie was able to manage all the health and safety information in a way that felt more like rallying versus micro-managing. Kacie says, “Using Zipline, checking for compliance just happens automatically as people complete tasks. This means that field leaders can now focus time on coaching, quality conversations and business impact.”

Perhaps the most impactful change that Zipline has brought to maurices is the focus on communication at all levels of the organization. Kacie explains, “With Zipline, we have this new tool to paint a picture of what success looks like so everyone understands their role in making the company successful. It also works the other way. Stores now have this powerful feedback solution to share what is happening in stores. It’s clear this solution was developed by someone very intimately involved in retail. It just works for us.”