Container Store Sells Zen and Glamour in a Box

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July 3 (Bloomberg) -- The most glamorous store in America may be going public.

I don’t mean Neiman Marcus Inc. -- or Bergdorf Goodman, which it owns -- although the luxury retailer is glamorous to many people, and it did just file for an initial public offering.

I’m talking about Container Store Inc.

The retailer, which has 61 stores and two more opening this fall, is known as an exemplary employer, ranking high on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 14 years running. It avoided layoffs after the 2008 downturn. It talks a lot about values, and its executives regularly say things like, “We all know we’re doing more than selling a product.”

All those good feelings -- and the sales that topped $750 million last year -- depend on something every Container Store customer knows well: The store’s merchandising is amazingly seductive. Like a luxury retailer, the Container Store gets a premium price for its products and persuades people to buy more than is strictly necessary because, knowingly or not, it traffics in glamour.

Glamour is not a synonym for luxury, celebrity or fashion. It isn’t a style, like mirrored furniture or satin dresses. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response. Glamour lets us feel that the life we yearn for is almost within our grasp. It is a powerful form of nonverbal persuasion.

Better Self

“We’re really selling not space as much as we are time,” says Chief Executive Officer Kip Tindell. Like the sight of chairs looking seaward on a white sandy beach or a model strutting down a runway in the latest fashions, a walk through a Container Store makes a customer imagine a better self in better circumstances. With the right equipment, it suggests, your life can be peaceful and orderly, giving you more time to relax and enjoy yourself.

“In a world that is so stressful and busy, I think it’s refreshing to enter an organized, clean and refreshing space. And not only is it organized, but it’s empowering me to think I can become that organized,” Leigh Atherton, a 27-year-old public-relations director for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based health-care company, said in an e-mail. She recently wrote on her personal Twitter feed that “it would be so fun to walk into the Container Store and purchase one of everything.” It’s a common sentiment, as are versions of “I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

As a business concept, the chain’s intense allure is surprising. You can, after all, find plastic shoe boxes, colorfully printed file folders, felted coat hangers and acrylic jewelry boxes elsewhere. You can live your whole life and never imagine needing a flip-flop holder, a “hanger hamper” for storage between dry-cleaner runs, a tiny bottle for carrying a single serving of salad dressing or a plastic box shaped like a giant Lego block. Even in suburbia, you can survive without a gift-wrap work station, roll-out cabinet drawers or a flexible cutting mat. But a trip to a Container Store, perhaps to buy subsidiary Elfa International AB’s proprietary closet-organizing system, will stir longings you never knew you had.

Although it points to emotional truths, glamour always includes an element of illusion. (The word “glamour” originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see things that weren’t there.) Every form of glamour hides flaws, difficulties, costs and effort. This grace is both an essential element of glamour and an object of it. “Glamour,” writes Diego Rodriguez of design-consulting firm IDEO, describing the meticulous but hidden maintenance required to keep a Lamborghini perfectly polished, “gives us a chance to believe that there’s no such thing as entropy.”

In his report on the prospective public offering, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Kyle Stock invoked the same promise. “The Container Store’s tidy, colorful aisles suggest that we can, at least for a time, triumph over the messy inevitable,” he concluded.

‘Zen Quality’

Unlike competitors such as Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc., the Container Store doesn’t stack shelves above customers’ reach or make aisles so tight that shopping carts can barely maneuver. It offers carefully edited abundance, including colorful but soothingly repetitive permutations of essentially the same boxes, coat hangers and kitchen gear. “There’s a Zen quality to having everything in its place,” says Tindell. That applies as much to the stores themselves as to your dream kitchen.

Creating that sense of order required a big strategic decision. Early on, chief merchandising officer Sharon Tindell, Kip’s wife, convinced the founding partners not to sell a full range of housewares. You won’t find lamps, clocks or towels in a Container Store. The selection is curated to keep customers thinking about their new, orderly lives. The store’s glamour depends on it.

Those tough decisions, like the everyday maintenance efforts and information-technology investments required to keep the shelves stocked and in order, are hidden behind the scenes. Similarly, the store never reminds you how much sorting your own organized ideal might take to achieve.

What people find glamorous tells us something about who they are. It shows us what we find lacking in real life and who we want to be. The yearning for stillness runs through many forms of contemporary glamour, particularly those aimed at affluent women, from the ubiquitous photographs of hot-stone massages to the 2011 Louis Vuitton ad featuring Angelina Jolie posing on a battered boat in a Cambodian swamp. The Container Store, too, appeals to people overwhelmed by having so much.

But -- critically -- this metaphorical form of Zen indulges, rather than denies, material desire. You don’t have to relinquish anything to find peace, its merchandising suggests. You can, in fact, have a great time buying ingenious, adorable, tactile or beautiful new things. The Container Store sells glamour for an age of abundance.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel at vp@dynamist.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.