The (Mostly) Magic of The Container Store

Over the past several months, I’ve become a podcast addict. Which means I’ve heard no shortage of advertisements for Audible, the audio book service. With an offer from the National Retail Federation to download a free copy of Uncontainable, by The Container Store’s Founder/CEO Kip Tindell, I finally tried out the service. I’m glad I listened to the book while jumping puddles in Manhattan this week, and I’m sure I’ll use Audible again.

The Container Store’s (TCS) leadership and culture principles are worth knowing. I won’t go into them here because they’re widely discussed elsewhere online, but there’s one that drives the company’s strategy of selling solutions rather than products. This means shoppers are presented with thoughtful answers to their storage problems, not just items they need to figure out how to use. And it’s this strategy Tindell believes — and I agree — sets the company apart from other retailers. It makes it harder for shoppers to showroom because it would be difficult to piece together the whole solution at a lower cost online. (The fact that a lot of TCS merchandise is proprietary also helps that cause.) More importantly, I think, it positions TCS associates as trusted advisors to whom customers will return next time they need a solution and not just a specific product.

Providing customers with solutions rather than items also makes the Elfa organizational system TCS’ top seller. This is possible because, in order to provide solutions across the store, every associate is trained on the complicated Elfa product.

Elfa is only one product carried by TCS that’s hard to buy and requires personal service. TCS is able to sell merchandise that other retailers aren’t because of the company’s unparalleled (to my knowledge) investment in employee training. Because of this, TCS actually directs its buyers to look for product that’s hard to sell. This is the opposite of what most retailers do. Furthermore, the need for service — high-quality service — gives the store a competitive advantage over other brick-and-mortar, and certainly over online pure play.

Fun fact: Despite the amount of high-ticket Elfa products sold, TCS’ average selling price is only $8. The plentiful assortment of organizational odds-and-ends means there’s something for everyone. I wonder how many customers stock up on items to reach the relatively high $75 threshold for free shipping on online orders.

Having moved into a new home last year, I’ve been a big TCS customer and largely a very satisfied one. That said, I’d love to see more and better design-your-own-solution tools on containerstore.com. I think there’s a lot they could do to creatively combine an online experience with the cheerful, human help for which they’re known. And for customers who do want to come to the store, online appointment-booking should be an option. I’d also love to see customer-facing technology in stores that makes it easy for customers to see their purchase history without the help of an associate.

The “personalized” e-mails I receive need improvement. For months, I’ve received messages featuring the same two items I browsed on containerstore.com. They happened to be products not proprietary to TCS… and I purchased them on Amazon Prime for lower prices and free 2-day shipping.

I disliked doing that. And, now having consumed this book — largely about “conscious capitalism” — I like it even less. Tindell shares very valuable messages about how to treat employees, vendors and, most interestingly, competitors. Uncontainable is worth a read or a listen.