A Conversation with Karen Peters, Global Head of Retail & Store Development at Alo Yoga

Big ideas for agility and engagement at NRF 2023

February 1, 2023

Global executive Karen Peters has an enviable retail resume: she’s been an SVP/EVP/COO at Saks, Vera Bradley, Nautica, Corepower Yoga, and American Eagle Outfitters, among others. Today she’s responsible for rapidly expanding the brick-and-mortar footprint of America’s favorite luxury athletic brand, Alo Yoga.

At NRF, Karen took the stage with Zipline CEO & Co-founder, Melissa Wong and shared how she’s leveraging her decades of experience leading established retail brands – with help from Zipline – to help to create a brand-new operating system at Alo that wows customers and motivates employees to join their global mission. 

So how is Alo keeping the brand aligned as they grow?

For Karen, it’s all about the “why”

When it comes to engaging store teams, it all comes down to connecting the “what” to the “why.” When employees understand how the work they do impacts a greater mission, they are empowered and motivated to contribute. By giving meaning to employees’ workload, and helping them to understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture, managers are transformed into leaders.

“If you start from a place of ‘why,’ as a leader, you’re able to coach and guide your team, versus just focusing on the tactics. If the team understands why they’re working for the brand, they’re engaged,” says Karen. “Zipline was founded on the ‘why,’ and ensuring that store teams understand.”

When Karen was managing 1200 AEO stores, she learned first-hand how the divide between context and enablement could create breakdowns at the level.

“When you go into a board room, you can’t see that communication is broken. There’s no KPI that shows that,” says Karen. “But if the team isn’t clear on what to do, you can have the best strategy, you can have the best staffing model, but everything at the store level will break down. Stores need to understand very clearly what the priorities are. So at American Eagle, I really had to advocate for what the root cause was. And that was a lack of communication.”

Rolling out new directives, even with the best intentions, doesn’t guarantee execution. But with the proper context, and by helping store teams to understand what the priorities are, or what “good” looks like, is the best way to ensure effective execution.

“And that’s the story of how I met Mel [CEO and Co-founder of Zipline],” says Karen. “I truly believe, whether it’s in life or it’s at work, everything starts with amazing communication… I truly believe that together, we transformed 1200 stores.

From Alo to AEO

“[At American Eagle] we had 1200 stores, tons of tasks, we had a lot of floor sets, we had a lot of signage because it’s a heavy marketing calendar, transfers, RTVs, buy-online, ship-from-store, the workload goes on and on… And there was no clear way for us to manage all the tasks we had to do,” says Karen. “So we were able to bring Zipline in and we were able to calm the chaos that we had. All of a sudden the stores knew exactly what they had to do on a daily basis, and the district managers could very easily and clearly follow up on those tasks.”

With a single source of truth, AEO created alignment from HQ all the way down to the frontlines. By combining communications and task management, Zipline helps employees across the organization to see how their workload is part of the bigger picture. “So I felt that at American Eagle, we took something that was really complex and we made it really simple and manageable. And the other thing I loved about working with you was that I truly felt we built it together.”

Karen knows better than anyone that transforming stores at scale isn’t always seamless, but she’s managed to boost productivity, engagement, readership, and execution on a huge scale. So when she stepped into her new role at Alo Yoga, a quickly-growing luxury athletic brand, she knew that Zipline would be an instrumental part of the transformation she would lead.

“When I started at Alo, we had less than a dozen stores,” says Karen. “By the end of this year, we’ll have 84. [Alo] is very different in the sense that we’re new and we’re growing very quickly.” 

Karen is passionate about bringing amazing communication to Alo. That’s why Zipline was her first call when she got the company. “It’s really important that our teams can clearly articulate out story to our customers.” 

That’s not the only reason that Alo is prioritizing Zipline as a solution. “The second reason I think Zipline is so critical to have right from the beginning is that we are just in the beginning phases of rolling out all of our processes.” Alo is currently rolling out RFID, and they’re gearing up to roll out a WFM tool. “I strongly believe that, as we’re growing the company and we’re figuring out our SOPs and all of our best practices, the answers are in the stores. We can learn as we go and continue to roll that out via Zipline.”

Keeping the magic alive in stores

At a brand like Alo, stores are the best manifestation of the brand: an opportunity for customers to engage with associates, interact with the products, and capture a sort of magic that just can’t be replicated online. This is why it’s key for the store team to feel connected to Alo’s mission – this way, they can become true brand ambassadors.

“It is very engaging for our associates to feel like they’re helping us build the brand. Again, for me, it goes back to the ‘why.’ We’re communicating… across many different time zones, many different regions, and different parts of the world. I think people are able to deliver on the brand strategy when they understand the ‘why.’ That’s why they came to work for [Alo] in the first place.”

Alo is particularly passionate about engagement. As a holistic company, their mission is to spread mindful movement, inspire wellness, and create community. “It’s so important that our associates are engaged, and that they can share our story with our customers when they come in the store because it’s so much bigger than just selling products. We want to amplify the positive, that’s what we’re all about.”

“As a leader, you can’t just tell people they have to be engaged. It doesn’t work. People come to our brand because the brand resonates with them. I think the way to foster that engagement is through enrollment and two-way communication, which Zipline allows us to so beautifully do.”

By hearing other people’s stories, to understand why fitness, mindfulness, and holistic thinking is so important to them, they get excited. Two weeks after Alo opened a flagship location at Rockefeller center, Karen stopped by to check in on the store. When she walked in, she heard the store team telling shoppers how the brand was founded. “I was thinking to myself, they’ve been here for two weeks, and they’re speaking as if they founded the company. To me that, that’s true engagement.”

Agility & Alignment

At American Eagle, just after COVID lockdown, 35,000 store associates were returning to work. “The number one important thing for me was that when we brought our associates back, they felt safe and they felt safe in the space that they had to come to work at during a time that was really scary.”

They changed everything. They figured out, like many other retailers, how to acquire plexiglass, remove fixtures from the floor, and operate the fitting rooms in a new way while wearing masks. They also had to understand the increased cleaning requirements. On top of it all, they rolled out the buy online pickup in-store feature across all their locations.

“And I remember talking to Mel during this time,” says Karen “And what I said to [Mel] was, thank goodness we rolled out Zipline before the world shut down because I don’t know how we would’ve done it otherwise… I think what Zipline allowed us to do is to implement massive change that didn’t feel like massive change to our stores.”

With Zipline, employees have a clear understanding of their tasks and how they fit into the bigger picture. This eliminates confusion and allows for smooth operation even during unexpected events. It’s a brand new way to think about communicating with stores – and it’s game-changing. “When chaos comes or the unexpected comes, it doesn’t throw you for a loop, because you’re so clear about what you need to do on a regular basis.”

This alignment was critical when COVID-19 catapulted retail into uncharted waters. When the pandemic hit, the AEO store communication team mobilized quickly and pivoted with incredible agility, putting in place the tools necessary to prioritize the health of its associates and customers. 

“Anything can happen in today’s world, and you have to be ready for that. And the way to be ready for that is to be very organized in what you do from a day-to-day basis and to ensure that teams have a great understanding of what that looks like. And one of the reasons you were my first call when I got to Alo is because I know that Zipline does three things really well: one thing is it’s one source of the truth… From headquarters to our regionals, to district managers to the stores, everybody knows exactly what that is. The second thing is, it allows us to prioritize. We’re always able to say what the priority is. And lastly, we have visibility into what our stores have done or what they’ve not done.”

Want to learn more about how Alo engages frontline teams and drives growth? Tune into the NRF 2023 Big Ideas session where Karen Peters shares her insights and strategies.

Zipline is how best-in-class retailers bring brand strategies to life in stores. A unified platform for operational excellence, Zipline brings together frontline communications, task management, resources, insights, and more—so that everyone feels connected to the brand and inspired by their work. Today, nearly 80 brands like Sephora, Rite Aid, and American Eagle Outfitters depend on Zipline to align and empower their store teams worldwide. Reach out to learn how Zipline can help align your store teams today.

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