The Vancouver, Canada-based manufacturer of active wear believes the ancient Hindu discipline, which aims to train your consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility, can help clear your mind and relax your body’s aching muscles while cross-training you for other sports and activities such as running, hiking, rowing, and rock climbing.
The yoga connection runs deep at lululemon. The company sells ideal clothing for yoga, pays for staff to take yoga classes, and holds its own classes five days a week at the head office. In-store bulletin boards are covered with fliers advertising off-site yoga sessions, and lululemon employees, called “educators,” are only too happy to recommend a favorite instructor.
“At the core, we’re yoga both literally and figuratively. Yoga is so good for you,” says Eric Petersen, lululemon’s marketing director. “We feel it’s a gift of health. If we can educate a customer on the benefits of yoga, we've made them a better person and the world a better place.”
He says the company’s brand is uniform across its 33 retail stores around the world (in Canada, the US, Australia, and Japan) but reflective of each location’s unique surroundings at the same time.
While each outlet sells identical lines of clothing and strives to present the same type of customer experience, all with a strong yoga flavor, its educators are encouraged to put their own individual stamp on the store.
For example, the North Vancouver outlet might put on a snowshoe running clinic for those traveling into the Rockies, while a Winnipeg store might offer a long-distance running course to help customers prepare for the Manitoba Marathon each year on Father’s Day.
“People will come in and talk about nutrition, windsurfing, running, whatever the local community is involved with. There's no model for what kind of things to put on. It's determined by what the local educators feel,” Petersen says.
The omnipresence of yoga at the company causes a common misperception that lululemon is a producer of clothes for women only. Petersen says nothing could be further from the truth, as it has a full range of garments for both men and women.
In fact, the company was founded by a member of the testosterone set, Chip Wilson, in 1998. He was a fan of yoga himself because he felt it helped him stay fit and limber for squash and several other sports. But when he looked around the almost entirely female class, all of whom were wearing men’s clothing but in a smaller cut, he saw an opportunity.
Petersen says user feedback is key to the design of its clothing, and so lululemon garments are designed by athletes, for athletes. It doesn’t offer sponsorships per se, but each store provides a select few people from a variety of sports—in different age categories and with varying abilities—with clothes in exchange for their views on how each item performs.
The company also holds design meetings in every city where it has a retail presence to get its designers up to speed with that market, what’s being asked for, and what people are wearing. Its people also want to know what competitive offerings are popular. To carry the close connection with its customers one step further, every member of the company’s executive team works one day a week on the sales floor.
In addition to its ambassadors, lululemon also lends its support to local athletic communities by providing an R&D (research and development) discount for anybody who is a certified yoga instructor, personal trainer or coach.
“We know a lot of these people. Sometimes it’s not the most lucrative position, but they’re the ones wearing our clothes eight hours a day,” Petersen says.
This mountain of firsthand information helps lululemon continue to be at the forefront of innovation. For example, it recently added silver—the metal, not the color—as a material (up to seven percent) in nine different pieces of its lineup.
“Silver prevents bacteria from growing, it doesn’t allow a stink to form. So at the end of a good, hard workout, the clothes don’t smell,” explains Petersen.
Charlie Finnbogason, managing partner of Franklin Retail Advisors, a Winnipeg-based consulting firm, says lululemon isn’t just offering up top-of-the-line clothing, it’s selling a way of life.
“A lot of what they talk about is keeping healthy, exercising, and drinking eight glasses of water a day. They’re looking at you to not only buy their products but to embrace the lifestyle they promote,” he says.
Judging from its growth—lululemon now has 650 employees—its strategy appears to be working well, he notes.
“You have to be different to be successful. You can’t just sell the same product at the same price. This is an example of the kind of retailer that can be successful in a competitive market because they have a larger appeal,” says Finnbogason.
Another interesting element to the lululemon brand, he adds, is that, because it embraces a low-impact type of activity that promotes health and well-being, it’s attracting customers who could patronize the company not only for months and years, but for decades.
“It’s the kind of exercise regiment you could continue for your whole life. When you’re 60 years old, you’re probably not running too many marathons,” Finnbogason says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Petersen says lululemon’s focus is unlike that of many other companies, which concentrate on making money first and then becoming a good corporate citizen.
“We think if you can do the right thing and practice what you preach, the money will take care of itself,” he says. “We're not there to sell you something. We're there to educate on our values, the brand values and the benefits of our product. If people are learning, where they're getting information from becomes a trusted source. They respect that person or company and that goes a lot further for us in the long run.”