Container Store co-founder shares secret shopping encounters
10:58 AM CST on Wednesday, February 17, 2010
If Garrett Boone could, he would ban retail workers from asking, “How are you doing today?” and “Can I help you find anything?”
The 66-year-old co-founder of the Container Store says rote, mindless greetings draw rote, mindless and dismissive responses from customers – even when they need guidance.
He cringes when he overhears employees use such vapid lines. And as a customer, this pseudo-interest drives him crazy.
“I’ll respond, ‘No thank you,’ automatically, even when I desperately need help,” he says. “Then I’ll think, ‘I didn’t really mean that,’ turn around and the person’s gone. They’re no longer in shouting distance.”
To prove his theory, Boone went on a shopping spree.
After four hours shopping at about 30 stores and encountering more than 60 salespeople, Boone came home with two pairs of jeans, a shirt and a half-dozen pairs of socks – spending $250 on a day when he set the sky as the limit.
He shared his mystery shopper experience with employees in a Container Store blog he writes as one of his duties as chairman emeritus.
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Now he’s sharing it with you – just don’t expect him to name names.
For his undercover mission, Boone dressed in a blazer (sans his signature bow tie) and his best Panama hat. “I looked like I had money to spend. If somebody was willing to sell it and I needed it, I was willing to buy.”
He headed to NorthPark Center and the shops along Knox-Henderson. He only went into stores where he might actually buy something. “I spent time looking carefully at items that interested me. I gave them every opportunity to connect.”
The good news was that almost every store had a greeter. But over and over again he heard: “How are you doing today, sir?”
His response – “Great. I’m just looking” – usually elicited a pro forma, “That’s great.”
End of contact.
Several high-end housewares stores had staff attending the register areas. None of those stores had anyone working the floor.
“I walked past them and said hello. They looked at me and smiled. I stopped 10 feet away, looking at stuff with great interest. Not one salesperson left the register to help me.”
He looked at $3,000 designer suits at a specialty retailer. No one approached him. He wound up buying $40 dress socks.
He walked into a “really neat energy store” (since closed) and was looking at a $6,000 computerized-flush toilet. The salesman asked whether he was finding everything OK instead of pointing out the marvels of the commode.
“It was sad because he wanted to help, but he didn’t know how to engage me in a conversation,” Boone says.
Shopping endorphins kicked in only twice.
Once came at a trendy men’s clothing store just as he was about to leave. “Suddenly there was this salesman, 30ish, who, with a big smile and a great deal of energy, said, ‘I love your hat, man! What a great style.’
“It was shameless flattery,” Boone says, “but it was delivered sincerely. It made me stop. I said, ‘Thanks. This is my favorite hat.’
“Until he said that, I didn’t realize how worn down and depressed I was from watching retail being done so poorly. I suddenly felt great, upbeat.”
Boone bought two pairs of jeans, a shirt and more socks.
His second A-plus experience was at an eyeglasses store where he was studying a wall of Polarized optic sunglasses for fly-fishing. “This young man walked up to me and said, ‘Are you going to use your own frames or do you need frames, too?’ He’d watched to see what I was looking at, saw that I was wearing glasses and was trying to take the next step. That got us to talking about the sunglasses.”
Boone wasn’t able to buy because he needs a new prescription. But he’ll go back.
He delights in catching customers off-guard.
In the early ’70s, when Boone was managing the Storehouse in Preston Center East, he asked the first customer of the day to dance.
“Without pausing, she said, ‘Oh, no thanks, I’m just looking.’ She walked past me about 20 feet, stopped, turned around and said, ‘What did you say?’ “
When Boone repeated his invitation, she said sheepishly: “Not right now. But I do need help with a sofa for my apartment.”
She bought a couch, two chairs and accessories.
“She was so programmed to hear a question that I could have said anything and she would have responded, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking.’ “
That’s why he prefers a statement to a question as an opener.
“Before approaching a customer, pay attention to her and then say something that tells her you’re paying attention. Say something flattering about her clothing, purse, jewelry, hat, the person she’s with. But you’ve got to mean it.”
Boone tells about a search for hardware a couple of years ago. He’d been directed to Home Depot only to be told, “Nah, we don’t have anything like that.”
After going from store to store for hours, he went back to Home Depot for a second try.
“I was in the tool section when a guy named Bob came up said, ‘You look lost.’ “
Bob found the hardware and suggested an impact drill for installation.
“I’d always wanted an impact drill,” Boone says. “I wound up buying $300 worth of stuff because this guy knew what he was talking about.
“I told him, ‘I should recruit you for the Container Store. But I need you here.’ “
One of Garrett Boone’s jobs as chairman emeritus of the Container Store is to train employees and help maintain the culture. Here are some of the great customer pickup lines he overheard in his latest round of Container Store visits:
•”I bet your closet looks just like this.”
•”Let me tell you what you are looking at.”
•”You’re looking at the sixth Elfa closet. Let me show you how Elfa can work for you.”
•”You look like somebody who didn’t find what you’re looking for. Let me help you.” (to a customer with an empty basket about to leave)
•”The one in the left hand is definitely the best choice!” (to a customer holding two items)
•”Looks like you’re hung up on hangers.” (to a man staring at the hanger wall)
•”Tape measure to the rescue!” (to a customer puzzling over size)
When Garrett Boone went mystery shopping, he called himself “Inspector MID.” That’s Container Store code for “Man in the Desert” selling.
Here’s how Boone explains MID:
“A man lost in the desert for weeks stumbles across an oasis and is offered a glass of water. But if you stop to think, you probably realize he also needs food, a place to sleep, a phone to call his family, a pair of shoes and a hat and umbrella to screen the sun’s rays.
“When a customer comes looking for shoe storage, most retailers help her find a shoe rack – that glass of water. We know she needs a complete solution for her entire closet.
“Man in the Desert selling teaches our salespeople to become so immersed in the customer’s needs that we complete their solution instinctively.”
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