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The Container Store networks its experts from store-to-store

February 28, 2014

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research's weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

Like many chains, The Container Store was seeking out a better store employee communication tool in large part to keep up with smartphone-enabled consumers.

"Our initial reaction was to buy a bunch of devices," said John Thrailkill, the VP of store metrics and systems, customer support, and business development. "But the reality is, we needed to look at employee communication holistically. ... What we really wanted was something that would pull together phones, walkie talkies, and mobile devices for employees."

But it had to be easy and intuitive to use, something that enabled "heads up conversations, not heads down at screens."

With walkie talkies, one employee looking for another within the store had to broadcast the request to all employees, the retailer found. Continually monitoring relevant and irrelevant messages was found to be draining for the store's staff.

A new solution from Theatro, however, solves that and more by enabling store employees to not only communicate directly but reach across stores through expert groups. For example, if a customer asks a question an employee can't answer, that person can send a request for help within the store — or could ask, for example, all employees across the chain that have identified themselves as "travel storage experts." Customer service reps within the call center, or even buyers in the corporate office, could also be tapped. "The idea that an employee in Miami could help an employee and a customer in Seattle is really exciting," Mr. Thrailkill said.

The system's capabilities also enables store managers to create broadcast messages related to "the morning huddle," where employees learn about important things going on in the store that day. Relying on voice mail as a way to disseminate this information, especially when coming from corporate to stores, has been a particular challenge for part-time employees.

Described by Mr. Thrailkill as "Siri without the phone," the WiFi-enabled solution is run and managed over a ridiculously simple device, armed with a couple of buttons and a jack for a headset.

As the retailer adds the cross-store communication function across its store network, they will be particularly interested in seeing the wider impact store employees have — in the time they spend helping not just customers, and not just other employees in their own store, but how they contribute to the retailer as a whole.

As consumers become better armed with information, being able to make every store employee as well-informed as your best employee on any topic is going to be an important differentiator.


Discussion Questions:

What should be top-of-mind when retailers are considering employee communication and collaboration tools? How would you rate the potential benefits and complications involved in enabling store employee communication across stores and departments?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What's the likelihood that in-store communications across a retailer's store network will be fairly common over the next three to five years?


Such a great counterpoint to the Nordstrom story today. Another reason why Container Store continues to be the role model in an ever increasing world that makes humans serve technology rather than technology serving the human connection.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

Simplicity...just keep it simple. That could mean a device for everyone in the store, or it could be a central device such as a touch screen that includes two way video conferencing, much like a kiosk on steroids. Whatever is used, it has to help keep store staff equal to if not ahead of their customers. I think having communications from one store to another is extremely important when it comes to customer service. I have seen it work very well at places like Home Depot.

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Frank Riso, Principal, Frank Riso Associates, LLC

The benefits to being able to answer any question for a shopper standing in front of you, particularly for a complex product are inestimable. Shoppers are time starved, and employees don't exactly have tons of extra capacity either. The container store solution sounds highly practical and effective. Kudos to them.

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

To compete against Amazon, retailers have to do something Amazon cannot. Well informed employees with knowledge beyond product specs is a tremendous differentiator.

Kudos to the Container Store on two fronts. First, they are extremely smart in implementing technology that does not require heads down on another screen. Second, they have literally created an information network and community that transcends the individual store. I dare say that this is the most powerful source of real time consumer information that corporate could ever develop.

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Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

The greatest thing about this communications solution that the Container Store has implemented is that it is focused on providing better customer service. At the same time it will help make employees feel more empowered to help customers, prevent them from feeling out of the loop, and more valued for their expertise.

Complications that could arise would be employees using collaboration tools for personal conversations or gossip. I've dealt with employees who have neglected dealing with a walk-in customer while chatting away on the phone.

The expert you may want to speak with may not be available and there could be lag time in finding someone who has the expertise you need. It could also create a high number of interruptions or inconvenient interruptions for those being sought for their expertise. It may be best to lay down some guidelines like using your in-store experts as your primary source and only going outside the store as needed.

However, potentially, the benefits outweigh the complications if it helps to better serve customers and increase sales.


Simplicity. Which device can retrieve or disseminate information quickly with the least disruption to the general workflow. There is no substitute for quickly providing consumers with information they need to complete a buying decision.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

You have to applaud The Container Store. They are not the largest in terms of total stores. But they certainly are the leader when it comes to innovation, customer support and employee retention. I have been a big fan of them for many years.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Top of mind? The customer and sales numbers. Why communicate in a store environment if you are not serving the shopper or improving the shopping space?

We are in this supposed digital world where the average NA person spends 72 per week in front of or using some form of technology - from PC to mobile to TV. This is not their work related time. (Nielsen)

So, when a shopper shops stores they want people time. Thus, the Container Store has it right with this mix of people-first technology.

The future in retail holds for us a shopper technology space that is standard, meaning shoppers will not see it as a differentiator. It will be the "yeah, everyone has that" space. The differentiator will be the any channel service factor. Behind this will be people - either helping shoppers online or in stores or on the phone...channel-less, high service retail - just like the old corner store days of retail.

Have a nice weekend and go shopping.

Tom...a future store greeter....

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

Keeping the associates "heads up" versus nose-in-device is the kind of behavior/reaction that will resonate with shoppers. They'll see "all hands on deck for ME," in a way other retailers aren't. Win for everybody.

Anne Marie Luthro, Most Insightful, AML Insights

The "heads up" idea is great. As the world moves to more devices, with more people having their heads down, it creates a huge customer service risk. This sounds like a great opportunity to provide technology-enabled service (with emphasis on improving the latter), rather than service people using technology.

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Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies

When implementing any technology solution, especially those aimed at improving productivity, it's vital to ensure that each user perceives that the value they're getting exceeds the "cost" to them in terms of complexity, time or energy. This point is so important it's worth restating: the user must receive more value as an individual (doesn't matter at all if the store or the corporation receives value) than what it costs that individual in terms of time, energy, training, etc.

I like to call this principle "user seductive" technology. To be widely and quickly embraced, a technology must go beyond simply being user-friendly (that's table stakes these days). A technology must be so attractive that users will be seduced into giving up their present ways of doing things to gain a higher-value benefit from learning and using something new. This moves your users from compliance to enthusiasm, and the enthusiastic user will gladly embrace and advocate the new technology.

So what are potential benefits and complications that arise for the user, or store associate, from the promise of this improved communication and collaboration?

* Store associates can be better informed and more helpful to customers. While this may sound like a customer benefit (it is, BTW), it's also significant to the store associate because as humans we thrive on being able to solve problems and mount challenges on our own. Having a little help, in the form of these tools, allows associates to be more successful at solving customer problems and answering questions. This sort of self-determined problem solving is a universal human motivator.

* Being an "expert" who helps someone else, brings us value in terms of social currency. It's about a person feeling they've got something of value they can share with others. It doesn't even matter if there's external recognition that you're the expert in XYZ -- just the intrinsic value one gets from knowing they were able to help someone out is another huge motivator.

* The biggest complication is this: people will embrace the new tools only if they are better at delivering the previous benefits AND they're easier and faster than what they're already doing. It needs to be a quantum leap from today's walkie-talkies and mobile phones -- or people will do the math in their heads and decide it's more effort than its worth.

People may comply if they have to, but they'll only truly adopt and embrace new tools and methods if they feel, "OMG, this is amazing! This is so much easier AND I get so much more out of it." Then they'll not only embrace it, they'll become advocates and actively get others on board. And that would be a grand slam -- over the fence and out of the park.

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Lance Thornswood, Sr Director, Omnichannel, JCPenney

It is not surprising that The Container Store found this solution. They are always focused on what is best for their staff and best for the customer - whether their commitment to extraordinary training, or this example of technology chosen to activate the power of the full team.
For all retailers, the message is clear: Realize the power of the individual and team talent in the organization, and provide the training and tools that meet their evolving needs. And, direct all this energy on serving customers and finding solutions to their evolving needs.

Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

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