Zappos tours showcase company’s quirks

‘Culture guides’ lead as many as 1,200 visitors a month through the online shoe and apparel retailer’s suburban Las Vegas headquarters, helping impart the brand’s offbeat ethos.

By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times

April 29, 2011

Reporting from Henderson, Nev.—

Michelle Lalonde beamed in the manner of a Vegas tourist about to polish off a yard-long margarita. Only there was no tequila — or neon or showgirls — in sight.

She and her business partner, Adriana De Luca, had arrived at one of the Las Vegas area’s more offbeat, and increasingly popular, attractions: an hourlong tour of cubicles. Oh, and a lunchroom too.

The online shoe and apparel retailer Zappos leads as many as 1,200 visitors a month through its suburban Las Vegas headquarters, translating its quirky customs for the overworked, underpaid suit-and-tie masses. “Culture guides” (no tour guides here) offer witticisms, some history and a shot at modeling a samurai helmet.

Like many tourgoers, Lalonde and De Luca were fans of “Delivering Happiness,” Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s bestseller. The back cover hints at the company’s offbeat appeal. No. 1 on a list of 10 reasons to buy it: “This book makes an excellent fire-starter.”

Zappos, which fellow Internet retailer Amazon scooped up in 2009 for about $1 billion, represented the alt-indie vibe that Lalonde and De Luca wanted for their skincare company, Tiber River Naturals. So the women, who employ about 30 people in Winnipeg, Canada, recently ducked out of a small-business conference, hoping to learn a few tricks.

Company tours — of auto plants, glass factories, candy makers, a kazoo factory in Eden, N.Y. — are nothing new. But groups touring Zappos don’t see craftsmen assembling stilettos and loafers. They don’t see the warehouse; that’s in Kentucky.

They don’t even gawk at much footwear, though the company’s name riffs off “zapatos,” Spanish for “shoes.”

Instead, they weave through cubicles bedecked with streamers, faux foliage and Mardi Gras beads. And a life-size cutout of a Jon Hamm-lookalike whose T-shirt says “I ♥ Shoes Bags and Boys.”

In the same way Disneyland’s Main Street imagines a town center without graffiti and homeless camps, Zappos imagines a workplace without the corporate-clone ethos mocked by “Dilbert” and “Office Space.” The persona, and the company’s reputation for first-rate customer service, has ginned up publicity, though they couldn’t ward off recession-related woes. In 2008, Zappos laid off 8% of roughly 1,600 employees.

The tour lures mostly Zappos fanatics about 10 miles off of the Las Vegas Strip, to a taupe office park near a Claim Jumper restaurant. Visitors are offered popcorn, ice cream and a copy of a book in which employees muse about what the company’s culture means. “Situational comedy,” one wrote. “And yellow bananas.”

Joe Bruzzese, 41, of Santa Barbara dragged along his wife, their two children and his parents when he took it a second time. “I wanted the kids to see what work could be like. Most offices are so sterile,” said Bruzzese, an author who focuses on school bullying issues. He won over his less-enthused wife, Kim, by promising, “Well, you’ll see some shoes.”

Zappos says it didn’t set out to create another tourist trap. Las Vegas already offers the Atomic Testing and Erotic Heritage museums. (Alas, the Liberace Museum closed.) The company launched the tours a few years back for vendors attending fashion industry conventions on the Strip. Word spread.

Zappos now offers at least four free tours a day, four days a week. Want more? The “Tour Plus” costs $47, and the two-day boot camp — in which participants learn “New age effective management techniques” and more — is $3,997.

Angeline Close, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Zappos was dabbling in “experiential marketing,” a form of promotion that’s more intimate than a TV ad and can more tightly bond company and customer. With the tours, she said, Zappos can show off the “brand personality” it’s worked hard to build.

“You tend to like things or people you know more about,” she said. “You’re more likely to trust a company and trust a brand, especially online, when you see the people behind the website.” Tourgoers also might post kudos on Twitter or Facebook — as the culture guides repeatedly encourage — or provide other word-of-mouth advertising.

This spring afternoon, Lalonde and De Luca’s tour began with a video that zipped through Zappos’ history. A guy named Nick Swinmurn couldn’t find Airwalk Desert Chukka boots in the size and color he desired and eventually launched the company. It moved to Nevada in 2004, partly because the 24-hour culture accommodated graveyard-shift workers.

Investor-turned-CEO Hsieh fostered an office with the tousled casualness of a college dorm, where some employees call themselves “Zapponians” and a top executive named Fred Mossler refuses to accept a title. “Just Fred,” the video explained.

The tourists headed to a cubicle maze bedecked with Christmas lights, posters of the Periodic Table of Elements and a stuffed raccoon’s hindquarters. Some conference rooms were named for casinos,including New York-New York and Monte Carlo. A dangling name tag with “Tony” marked the CEO’s cubicle.

“Does Tony come in every day?” someone shouted.

“You never know when you might see him,” said the group’s guide, Rocco DeBenedictis. Or what else you might witness.

One day near a sign for “Monkey Row,” where Hsieh sits, a female tourgoer proclaimed on a bullhorn that she loved her life. Her boyfriend replied, “Will you marry me?” They returned to get hitched by an Elvis impersonator.

Today, there were neither Hsieh sightings nor marriage proposals. But Zappos teams livened up the tour as DeBenedictis marched onward — past cubicles cluttered with hiking boots and photos of party hat-wearing cats.

“I couldn’t work in that environment,” Lalonde said later. “I think it would make me nuts. I need clean space.”

Even so, Lalonde, 41, and De Luca, 39, snapped pictures with an enthusiasm tourists usually reserve for the Bellagio fountains.

When they reached the team for Zappos sister website — it sells clearance shoes and clothing — they were greeted with tambourines. A bit later, the apparel team tinkled triangles. And when they got to human resources, the team did not disappoint, with a sign comparing the group to a mullet (“Business in the front … Party in the Back!!!”) and a recording of “Eye of the Tiger,” accompanied by shake weights.

DeBenedictis then guided the group to the call center, where workers murmured into headsets. They’re encouraged to follow up with customers, perhaps with notes (“Have a Rock Star birthday!” said one on display) and sweets.

At the tour’s end, DeBenedictis led the group downstairs to a replica of the company’s Royalty Room, which includes an intricately carved throne and an array of headgear. De Luca chose the samurai helmet. “I feel power,” she said before DeBenedictis snapped her picture.

Back in Winnipeg, she and Lalonde decided some Zappos traits were worth copying for their Tiber River skincare firm: sending thank-you notes to customers, defining what the company stood for and making decisions based on that.

They’d already started their own culture book. “Tiber River is like Cheers,” said the first entry, which De Luca posted on the company blog. “Everyone knows each other.”