Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Container Store and Best Buy: adjacent locations, but worlds apart

Whenever I have something to buy at the Container Store, adjacent to the Tenleytown Metro stop, I look forward to the experience. The staff are so friendly and helpful I always feel as if the store was bathed in sunshine. I know at least one reason why. Some years ago my then graduate student, Traci Fenton, was writing her MA thesis on corporations that manage their employees democratically. Her theory was that more democratic corporations could also be more profitable. This was Traci’s passion and, now she is president of a company, WorldBlu, that promotes and publicizes democratic corporate governance. (Check out WorldBlu at I don’t remember all the companies Traci described, but two were Southwest Airlines and The Container Store. Both are highly profitable and both have off-the-charts customer service.

When I visit the Container Store, as I did earlier this week, I often tell the salesperson who assists me about Traci’s study. My most recent conversation was typical. The staff member’s expression, already cheerful, brightened still further as she described how great it was to work there. She had an MA in international development and had begun, post graduation, working with an NGO. But like many in the NGO world, she was frustrated by her organizations’ management inefficiencies. Initially she was working at The Container Store, part time, to earn additional income, but she found the work so much more satisfying, because of the company’s values and management style, that she applied for and eventually was offered a full time position. I love to come to work each day, she told me. I feel that my work is really making a difference.

Today, I went next door, to ‘Best Buy’ to check out a printer I wish to buy. The contrast between the two showrooms brought back memories of crossing the Berlin wall from West to East, when I consulted in Berlin during the 1970s. True, there were no barbed-wire-topped chain link fences or guard towers to keep Best Buy customers from escaping, but the ambience was the same. The staff member who sullenly acknowledged my greeting and answered my question about finding a printer could easily have graced a recruiting poster for the East German ‘People’s Police.’ The staff member who pointed out the showroom area where the printer I was seeking might be found was equally laconic and disinterested. He didn’t answer my question about a Cannon Printer that might be comparable to the one I owned. ‘Here are are our Cannon Printers’ was all he said, as he pointed to an aisle where they were located.

I could have asked, but wasn’t motivated to ask whether these employees felt their lives were making a difference, working at Best Buy. i didn’t need to. I could read the answer in how they looked and how they acted. “Do they ever walk next door to The Container Store and see what an affirming, empowering work environment could be like,?” I wondered.

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Blogger Hatef said...

Hi, thanks for the insights. As former member of the management team at TCS, I worked with Traci when she was studying The Container Store and I miss philosophizing about democratic management. I don't work there anymore, but I can attest that TCS really is an amazing place and truly deserving of the high ratings it receives in the Fortune honors.

Like you, I've also lamented having to cross the divide from TCS to Best Buy. Having worked at TCS as well as tech retailers like Computer City and The Apple Store, I have to say that one of the biggest challenges to managers is having a budget of time for training.

Tech products change frequently and have hundreds of features. The tech retail shopping experience is also highly commoditized because of competition from online retailers like where you can find the product and in-depth information and reviews alongside each product.

TCS by contrast (and by strategic intention) sells many unique products (with little or no online competition) that can remain unchanged for years. As a TCS employee, my product knowledge grew with each year. As a tech retail employee, my product knowledge diminished with each iteration of product lines. That's because it's really difficult to keep up with dozens of manufacturers and dozens of product lines.

So while I completely agree with you that the Best Buy experience pales in comparison to the TCS experience, the challenge of finding, training and keeping knowledgeable, friendly staff is far greater in tech retail.

I do believe in the power of democratic management, but I don't think the difference between BB and TCS is because they're not democratically managed, I think it's because of the nature of the product and the retail competitive environment.

11:29 AM  
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