A Retail Culture That's Outside The Box

Anytime I'd pass a Container Store, an old "Saturday Night Live" skit would pop into my head. You know the one I'm talking about, right? "The Scotch Boutique," wherein nothing but tape products of the "sticky" variety are sold by proprietor Fred Willard and his trusting, cheerful but increasingly skeptical staff. Or, as the case may be, not sold.

Well, I had just finished reading the depressing news in The New York Times a few weeks ago that "curling up by the fire may be the next eco-crime" -- more about which another time -- when something caught my eye. It was really just a subhed on the bottom of an otherwise rather conventional back-page retail ad trumpeting The Container Store's annual 30%-off "elfa" shelving sale: "What we stand for®," it read. Intrigued by a registration mark on something seemingly so innocuous, I read more:



"We're thrilled to announce a new online community for our employees, our customers, our vendors and our nonprofit partners. Visit our enhanced blog at standfor.containerstore.com to learn more about our unique, employee-first culture, tell us about your experiences and become an even bigger part of What We Stand For | Organization With Heart®

Having had no experiences to write about, I knew it was time for a field trip to the store in suburban White Plains, N.Y., which I undertook last Saturday. I was immediately greeted when I walked in. No, I wasn't looking for anything in particular, I said. I had passed by the store many times and finally decided to check it out.

"You'd be surprised how many people have told me that," Michael said pleasantly. "If you have any questions, just ask anyone in a red apron." And that was that. Phew.

In most stores, I'm one of those guys who will divert my eyes and kick into overdrive towards the water cooler if a salesperson appears to be drawing a bead on me. But the Container Store immediately felt different. And so did I.

Maybe it was the cashier who was softly singing the chorus to "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" as other checkers chatted amiably with customers and I perused the nearby rack of irresistible goodies like LED key rings, mini screw drivers and Fuzzy Fingers. I grabbed a staple-less stapler before moving on to the larger world of drawer organizers and bins, brushes and drainers, boxes and wrapping paper, luggage and backpacks, hooks and cord clasps, shoe bins and garment bags and, of course, all manner of adjustable shelving and boxes for closets, entertainment centers and home offices.

Along the way, I actually had a pleasant encounter with a man in a red apron about the relative merits of various trashcans with lids. I didn't buy, but I walked away guilt-free, feeling that he actually enjoyed imparting what he knew.

As I was checking out with assorted items after an hour or so of slack-jawed wonderment about all the things I could do to better organize my life, I mentioned to the cashier that there seemed to be a very cheerful vibe to the store.

"We try to keep it that way," she replied. "We try to have fun." She been employed at the store for three years, she said, and suggested that management must have a hiring profile that targets upbeat workers. "Everybody's like this. There's no negativity," she said. "Of course, people are different. But we all try to stay positive."

Indeed, it doesn't just happen by accident. New employees reportedly receive more than of 260 hours of formal training during their first year, compared to an industry average of eight. The Container Store has been on Fortune magazine's list of the "100 Best Companies To Work For" 11 years in a row. "One of our Foundation Principles™ is that one great employee is equal to three good employees (in terms of business productivity), so why not hire only GREAT employees?" it says on its website.

Kip Tindell, the co-founder, chairman and ceo of The Container Store, was an off-campus roommate of Whole Foods founder John Mackey at the University of Texas, Austin, in the Seventies, although they were not particularly close at the time.

"Simultaneously, we hit upon the philosophy that I think will be the dominant philosophy in business in the 21st century," Mackey told Time magazine's Justin Fox a few years ago. "It's this principle that the purpose of business is not primarily to maximize shareholder value."

When Tindell expanded from Dallas to Houston back in the day, he was not happy with the results even though the store was doing triple the volume he had expected. "It felt like somebody else's business," he tells Big Think. "We couldn't hire enough people, we didn't like the people we were hiring."

At that point, he re-booted.

"Basically what we've done is we've agreed on a set of 'ends,' and we've liberated everyone in the company to choose the means to those ends that they think is most appropriate, because life it too situational and retail is certainly too situational for anyone to think that they're smart enough to tell employees how to behave in any given setting," he continues on Big Think.

My experience is that it's working. And although The Container Store is a private company, I've got to think that shareholders think so, too. But if Tindell is to be believed, he's not going to be very happy about this story.

"I don't need to hear how great we are again; I want to know what we're doing a thoroughly lousy job of," he says in a "Good Morning America" piece, adding that some of its best-selling new items are suggested by employees and customers.

As of this weekend, I've got my thinking cap on.

4 comments about "A Retail Culture That's Outside The Box".
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  1. Betsy Berman from Activ8Marketing, February 8, 2011 at 11:46 a.m.

    Every word of this is true based on hundreds of visits to the Container Store. Talk about creating, living, extending and projecting a brand! Once in a while when I am feeling blue or having a rough day by husband will try to cheer me up by offering to take me to the Container Store. It is our "in" joke but it is based on fact...I love the Container Store and it makes me happy to go there. I never leave without something. BUT, along with the great staff, wonderful service and appealing atmosphere, they have great buyers who really know their consumer and their consumers' needs. Now that's SHOPPER MARKETING.

  2. Mark Burrell from Tongal, February 8, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

    I LITERALLY thought the EXACT same thing regarding SNL when my sister started raving about it.

  3. Diane Dzurochak from NONE, February 8, 2011 at 5:45 p.m.

    Would that there were a few more big retail (or any) businesses for that matter, that actually cared about anything BUT the shareholders -- or in the case of larger private companies, exponential profit growth.

    I've worked for large private and large public companies, and in all cases, I felt like an expense on a spreadsheet rather than a human they hired to be part of their team. Thanks for the great article - now I know why I have always liked going to the Container Store (besides my penchant for organization). And there are a million reasons to love Whole Foods, and I do.

  4. Sadie Elliott from Sadie and Friends, February 8, 2011 at 10:07 p.m.

    Hate to be the naysayer here but every time I've been to the container store, and admittedly it's been a number of years now, I walked away empty handed. I'd go expecting to find the perfect item for what ever purpose I was trying to content and voila I couldn't find one. The few things I did find seemed priced too high as well.

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