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The Container Store

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This weekend, as my older son and I returned from a movie, we happened to pass The Container Store, which stretched across half a block of prime real-estate in Old Town, Pasadena. How did the owners manage to fill two floors with containers? Do people really shop for containers? We decided to go in and find out.

The gigantic space was lit up like an operating room and sectioned off according to strict logic: Kitchen, Shelving, Office, Trash, Laundry, etc. I felt logical myself under the bright lights, empty-headed but not dull, ready to take things in. As we passed the backpacks in the Back-to-School section, I wondered, could my younger son use that extra flap for his math stuff? And what about that lunch box with the velcro fastener? I don't pack a lunch - but I could start. The store was telling me what to do, trying to organize my life with its products. I laughed at myself for getting suckered in.

A saleswoman greeted us with a warm smile. I asked what she thought when she first started working here, expecting to hear some initial skepticism. Instead she described how her parents had taken her to the grand opening of a Container Store in Texas when she was 13. Her whole family loved the Container Store. "And now I get to work here," she said. Her tee shirt read, "Contain Yourself."

A saleswoman by check-out told us the history of The Container Store, how 3 Texans named Garret, John and Tip founded the first one in 1978 with only $35,000. Now there are 37 stores across the country and a new one opening up in Century City in November. The Saleswoman remembered the excitement of her first time in a Container Store. "Who would have thought you needed all this stuff?"

The followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon used to host free Sunday night dinners in New York. I went to one when I was in college, cynically, for the free food. I remember the smell of fried chicken, a
middle-aged man tinkling on the piano, another man talking earnestly about God as he scratched his knee with his wrist. I remember feeling nostalgic for the all-American family I never had and at the same time feeling an almost hysterical desire to get out. This is how I felt talking to the sales people at The Container Store.

A day later, I looked into The Container Store on the Internet and felt twinges of guilt for my impulse to skewer the place on HuffPo. Forbes magazine ranked The Container Store 4th out of "100 Best Companies to Work for." The company pays well and offers benefits and vacations to full- and part-time workers. The Container Store is a good corporate citizen.

And yet.

The "About Us" section of The Container Store web-site explains how first-year, full-time sales people receive more than 241 hours of training. 241 hours! "When a customer walks into any of our stores, they immediately sense 'the air of excitement' that exemplifies the entire company..." What kind of indoctrination happens in those 241 hours to create the sales cult I met in Pasadena? I am glad The Container Store pays well, but I am disturbed when a sales person knows the cosmology of the company that cuts her checks. Corporations have used the language of faith for a long time now, throwing around words like "vision," "mission," "passion" and "evangelism," but for some companies, this is more than lip--service. The Container Store wants its people to believe in The Container Store.