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MEC chief executive Phil Arrata.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Money-losing sports and outdoor recreation retailer MEC is launching a new plan to return to financial health, which includes cutting costs, changing up its merchandise and making a major investment to try to prevent turnover of its store staff and improve customer service.

MEC (formerly known as Mountain Equipment Co-op) announced on Monday that more than 950 casual, non-permanent store staff will be given full-time or part-time roles. The change, which affects nearly 70 per cent of store employees, will give those workers access to benefits such as health and dental coverage, and a minimum number of guaranteed hours a week.

MEC has struggled with sluggish financial results and high turnover of its staff. The company recently went through arbitration after workers at its Vancouver and Victoria stores became the first in its store network to unionize. Workers were seeking improvements in wages, schedules and working conditions.

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MEC chief executive Phil Arrata said the move to shift casual employees to more full-time and part-time work is aimed at ensuring staff at its 22 stores across Canada are knowledgeable about its products and services and are more engaged with customers. In the last year, the turnover rate of MEC’s casual staffers was approximately 80 per cent, while only 18 per cent of part-time or full-time employees left the company.

“We’re competing in a very tough environment. For us to remain competitive and to evolve and transform our operation, it starts at the front line and making sure that we have engaged staff,” Mr. Arrata said in an interview. “When we have 80 per cent of staff turning over in a store, the reality is that, essentially, everybody’s new. ... This is a big investment on our part.”

Mr. Arrata, formerly the chief financial officer at Best Buy Canada, joined MEC in the summer. His priority is returning the stores to growth and profitability: MEC reported an $11.5-million net loss on $462.4-million in sales in the year ended Feb. 24, 2019. As a co-op, MEC pays out “patronage returns” to members (calculated based on how much they spent with the retailer) in years when it earns a surplus, but has not done so in the past two fiscal years. MEC employs roughly 2,400 people, about 1,400 of them in its stores (not including seasonal store workers) and the rest in warehouses in Vancouver and Toronto, at its customer-support centre and at head office.

In addition to spending money on staff, the organization is cutting costs. MEC is also set to announce that it is looking to sublet its headquarters in downtown Vancouver – the space is three to four times too large for the headcount at the head office, which is not growing, Mr. Arrata said – and move to a less expensive space. Other cost-cutting initiatives include reviewing contracts with IT providers and other vendors, and supply chain practices. For example, by cutting the number of times a week that inventory is delivered to stores, he said, MEC can save on freight costs, as well as reducing its carbon footprint.

Mr. Arrata is also evaluating the stores’ merchandise offerings.

“There are categories where we need to shrink,” he said. For example, while it makes sense for MEC to offer personal flotation devices for dogs, since some customers take their pets on canoe and other boating trips, the stores expanded too far into an assortment of products that competes with traditional pet stores. Yoga wear is another area that MEC will continue to offer, but in a smaller assortment.

“There is some very strong competition in that space,” Mr. Arrata said. Companies such as fellow Vancouver-based retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc. have built a loyal following. Meanwhile, categories where MEC has traditionally been strong – especially climbing, camping and snow sports – are growing and changing. Indoor climbing gyms are becoming more popular, but MEC has not changed the space in its stores dedicated to climbing gear.

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“We need to keep up from a product assortment perspective,” he said. MEC buys its merchandise 12 to 18 months ahead of time, so the changes will be gradual. MEC will also evaluate its house-brand products to ensure they don’t overlap too much with other brands its sells and are the up to customers’ quality standards.

Like many retailers, MEC is facing competition especially from online giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc. French sporting goods retailer Decathlon has been expanding into Canada as well, and MEC also competes with Canadian Tire Corp. and its Sport Chek stores, and smaller local and regional players. The organization is working on improving its website to find growth through e-commerce, Mr. Arrata said. MEC is also looking for a new head of marketing.

MEC has been working to improve communications with customers to understand how it needs to improve. In the past, it included a note on receipts asking customers to fill out a survey; recently, it changed its system so that instead, it e-mails people who recently made a purchase. Survey responses increased to roughly 6,000 a month from 200 a month.

“We’re on a transformation journey,” Mr. Arrata said. “We’re making these changes because we need to really remain relevant to Canadians.”

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