Lifting and shifting to online also doesn’t seem to have worked for some. Amazon’s logistical prowess, combined with its ease of use, has meant that some traditional retail giants cannot compete with the online giant’s scale.
As a result, the ones that are fairing best within this new competitive landscape are those that are differentiating themselves from Amazon. Using physical assets and digital tools to provide customers with a more personalised experience.
That’s certainly what The Container Store trying to do - a business that focuses on helping customers maximise space, was founded in 1978, and has over 90 stores across the US. The Container Store is looking to differentiate by providing customers the best possible service it can, particularly for its ‘custom closets’ division, which allows buyers to customise storage to suit their needs and is a big chunk of its business.
I got the opportunity to speak to John Thrailkill, The Container Store’s EVP of Technology and Development, at Dreamforce in San Francisco this week, to discuss not only the company’s use of Salesforce, but more broadly about how to remain competitive in such a rapidly changing market.
Thrailkill began by explaining how The Container Store started using Salesforce many years ago, after a vendor it was using to provide a chat product in its contact centre was acquired and then quadrupled its price. This led The Container Store to engage with Salesforce. Since rolling out the chat product, Thrailkill began to understand the benefit of Salesforce as a platform, and his since implemented it as its core piece of technology to interact and engage with customers. This is particularly true for the custom closet side of the business. He said:
That’s something that is a more complex selling process of course, because you're not typically just walking in and saying, “I'll take that”. There's a little more of a thought process from a customer because instead of spending $100 you might be spending $4,000. There’s a lot more followup involved, and there's typically emails, there's chat, there's phone calls.
So really we now have it where when you're in one of the stores and you're working on a closet, that information is being captured, fed into Salesforce and the platform is the core process to follow up with you.
This is also true if you go online. If you you came in to a store today and we designed a closet and we sent that to you via email, we're also capturing that in a way that that's on our website. So you could go and look at that on our website, you could then initiate a chat and that chat is captured by Salesforce - but that person you're chatting with is seeing again, everything that you talked about. You then can also go back in the store and it's all going to be there for you.
Since implementing Salesforce CRM for this purpose, The Container Store has also rolled out Salesforce Field Service Lightning to its delivery and installation contractors, which again now have access to all the customer data, allowing them to provide a better service. For example, Thrailkill said:
With Field Service, it's allowing us to take all that information that’s already in Salesforce, put that in the installer's hands so they can see - oh wow, this person, took six trips to the store on this thing. They then know that this person is very detail oriented walking in there. The customer doesn’t care if it’s a contractor, to them, it’s us.
“It's that seamless process, so something like field service allows that to be a better experience.
Thrailkill said that the use of technology should not be introduced to replace workers, but to rather get them doing more high value work - providing a better service to customers. Equally, The Container Store takes an approach that allows customers to choose between technology and employees, in equal measure.
Thrailkill argued that the unified Salesforce experience allows The Container Store to do just that, putting the customers in control of what kind of service they want to receive, whether that be digital or traditional. He explained:
What we want is we want people to have the choice as consumers about how much they engage with our employees versus how much they do themselves. We need to be smart about us not forcing them to work with our employees unless they want that experience. We need to give them all the tools that they want and if they want to design the closet themselves and just simply buy it online and have it shipped to them and install it themselves, then that’s what they can do.
But we also don't want to miss the opportunity where we think we can give a better experience to say, “Hey, here you have a choice, do you want to buy this online and go with that, or do you want to work with one of our experts right now?”
Do you want to chat with us or do you want to make an appointment at a store? Which you can also do again from our website now.
And this involvement with us personally doesn't have to be from the beginning. It could be in the middle or it could be right at the very end just to validate. And maybe they say, “I think I'm good, but this is $3,000, so can somebody just talked me through this and make sure I'm doing the right things?”
I think that's where we will always try to differentiate, is on the side of service, on the side of ensuring that people are making good choices based on our expertise and embedding a lot of that expertise into the tools
The elephant in the room
All of this ties into what was described at the start, around how The Container Store isn’t looking to compete directly with Amazon, but is looking to differentiate on service. This is what many retailers fail to grasp - the technology shouldn’t be used to replicate what Amazon is doing (because, often they don’t have the scale), but it should be used to compete in other ways.
There's no question that when you look at what Amazon's doing, I don't feel like you can effectively compete with them. For us, our focus is around the idea of creating tools online that are more about projects. So again, more of a focus on, not just custom closets, it's even around tools to help you organize the kitchen drawers, to organize the the areas in your house you need to take care of. And if we can come at it from that standpoint, then that's not something Amazon's looking to go after.
There's going to continue to be, I think more fallout in in retail from those companies that simply think that having a physical store presence will be the only thing that really separates them from Amazon. You get benefit from retail locations, but if your stores are truly just about having a physical product there, and the ability to take it home right then, that's not a strategic advantage anymore. And in many cases it's a disadvantage because the customer has to come in and get it.
You just find a way to do something different. And if you don't have something to differentiate, well then yeah, then you're probably going to get beat.