We speak to Sharon Tindell— President and Chief Merchandising Office at The Container Store — for an insider’s view of how this iconic 40-year-old retailer retains its coveted spot as the leading organizational store in the U.S.
by Michelle Hespe
People love to buy things. To own things. It’s what most of us do — gather things to improve our lives or add something special to them. So back in 1978, in an era where art and ornamentation in home decoration was on-trend, the idea of a store dedicated to selling empty boxes was audacious. This bold move, however, was what made The Container Store stand out, and then go on to become famous — the first 1,600-square foot (150 m2) store leading the way into a new era where organizing your life had merit on both a psychological level, and on an operational one.
The business idea was grand in its simplicity: buy boxes and other storage objects to sort your life and office out, and thus improve your life. “I am super organized,” states Sharon Tindell— President and Chief Merchandising Officer at The Container Store, who is married to Chairman of The Container Store, Kip Tindell. “I have not always been so though! I believe that everyone can learn to be better organized. It is a discipline that pays you back, giving you more time, and less frustration. Eliminating clutter and unnecessary items is key, but there is still a lot to be said about hanging on to sentimental things, as long as they are not in your way of daily living.”
Fast forward 40 years, and the company has 91 stores, 5,300 employees and it generated more than US$780 million in revenue in 2017, netting more than $22 million. Year after year it appears on Fortune‘s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” and in 2017 it sat at number 11 in the list. Although the store is an uber-modern retailer that embraces technology, social media and the entire gamut of the online world, the core of the business remains the same, and is still a tightly streamlined offering: it offers real organizational solutions from people who love being organized.
A great example of how the company moves with the times in order to remain relevant is the recently re-opened, newly imagined flagship store in Dallas, which incorporates a new approach to selling, including the latest and greatest technology to help customers accomplish their organizational projects.
One of the goals of this new store is to make the shopping experience more personal, and to ensure that customers don’t feel overwhelmed by the thought of where to start when it comes to organizing their life. Additional space was added to the massive 24,500-square-foot (almost 2300 m2) storefront, ceilings were lowered to make the store more inviting and homey and rows of shelving were removed to improve sightlines — meaning customers can easily link up one idea/product to another that they may see from a distance.
New flooring and enhanced lighting were installed to create a more approachable environment, and merchandise was organized into specific departments such as kitchen, office, storage and closet to make projects easier to imagine, whether they be big or small. The store also has 18 digital screens to support customers, featuring everything from inspiration and tips to an interactive design tool.
One of the most exciting innovations and a draw card that is becoming increasingly popular in the store is The Organization Studio. The program allows customers to upload a photo or video of their organizational challenge online, describe the problem, and arrange an in-store appointment to meet with a store organization expert. There are also interactive screens at the Custom Design Centers — which are basically tools for the store team and the customers, to showcase myriad examples of “real” closet spaces that might suit their lifestyle.
Sharon believes that the brave new world that has been thrust upon retailers over the past few years brings with it endless new streams of inspiration. “The complexities of running a retail business have changed exponentially in the last few years, and we now have more aggressive competitors coming at us from all angles,” she says. “So we have been looking at our business through a fresh new lens. Our mantra is: “It’s a new, new day,” — and that means that nothing is off the table for discussion. As we continue to assess who our customer is, and how to continue to attract new customers, our marketing and merchandising decisions are even more critical to the success of our brand.”
Innovation has always been at the core of what The Container Store does — after all, they are experts in providing customers with ideas to improve their lives. Like industrial designers, they look for solutions to enhance lifestyles. “As merchants, we have always looked for innovative and clever solutions that are unique to solving storage and organization problems,” explains Sharon. “We listen to our customers and learn from them and the challenges they face. Our proprietary products are reflective of combining their input with elevated materials and design to create solutions that they will love to use every day.”
Sharon feels incredibly fortunate to work in such a creative environment that continually fosters innovative thinking. “If we do not evolve as a company and take risks, we cannot continue to be relevant,” she explains. “I continue to be inspired by so many great people who I work with, respect and admire, along with partners in the vendor community who I have known for many years. We are very proud of our culture and legacy that we have built based on common principles.”
The Container Store principles – in the words of Kip Tindell
- One great person is equivalent to three good people. The store only hires 3 percent of the people that apply as they believe that investing in one great person (who is paid more and given more responsibility) is better than hiring three good people.
- Communicating is leadership. “We don’t work on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, but rather we ask ourselves, ‘Who will benefit from having this information?’ This 360-degree thinking and execution is one of the many key differentiators to business.”
- Fill the other guy’s basket to the brim, as then making money becomes an easy proposition. “Crafting mutually beneficial relationships with business partners works, and it has been a successful approach for our business since the very beginning.”
- The best selection, service and price. To add competitive pricing to that equation is generally unheard of, but The Container Store works hard to achieve all three simultaneously with this philosophy.
- Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind, you need to train before it happens. “We want our employees to use their intuition to anticipate the needs of customers and recommend product solutions. We are the experts and must ensure our customers feel more than taken care of by us.”
- The “Man in the Desert Selling” is a philosophy about astonishing customers rather than just giving them what they expect. “Imagine a man lost in the desert,” Kip says. “He stumbles across an oasis where he’s offered a glass of water, because he must be thirsty. But if you stop to think about what he’s experienced and what his needs really are, you know that he needs more than just water. He needs food, a comfortable place to sleep, a phone to call his family, maybe a pair of shoes and a hat to screen the sun’s rays.” That is the difference in service at The Container Store.
- When you are three steps into a store, you can tell whether or not a retail store has ‘it’. “The ‘Air of Excitement’ is The Container Store’s employees’ smiling faces and genuine concern for customers’ needs. It’s the bright, innovative and conversation-provoking products, the clean, well-organized shelves and the pleasant music that speaks to our customers.”
When visiting the International Home + Housewares Show, you can easily visit The Container Store in Chicago at 908 W North Avenue. The Container Store is also one of the stops at the Chicago Retail Tour – for more information visit www.housewares.org/show/retail-tour.
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