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Employees' passion for products reaps rewards for Container Store, Bill Jackson's

One store focuses on the outdoors. The other focuses on the indoors. Both succeed by putting employees first and letting their people's passions take care of sales. At Bill Jackson's, employees share an enthusiasm for camping, hunting and other adventurous pursuits. At the Container Store, it's about organizing, decluttering and creating the perfect home. The result is a satisfying work environment for both retailers considered by many as destinations, not just places to shop. The Container Store in Tampa ranked seventh among Tampa Bay's top workplaces for small employers. Bill Jackson's was 24th.

On the surface, the companies are quite different. Bill Jackson's is a family-owned business founded out of a garage in 1946. The Container Store is a publicly traded company with more than 60 locations nationwide. Its Tampa store opened a year ago.

But ask managers and employees what makes the stores special, and they talk about a family-like atmosphere, open communication and decent pay, not always the norm in the retail world. And, unlike most retailers, the stores aren't reliant on holiday traffic, which can account for up to 40 percent of some stores' annual sales. Sales at the Container Store and Bill Jackson's are steady year-round, allowing employees to work mostly regular hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Bill Jackson's was founded in St. Petersburg and moved to its current spot along U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park in 1976. Nestled on 5 acres next to Freedom Lake, the store has an indoor swimming pool for scuba diving lessons, a snow ski practice deck and classrooms for firearm safety, fly casting and backpacking clinics. Its owner and namesake worked in the store right up until his death in January at age 98. His wife, Harriet, died soon after in March.

The store has 53 employees, most of them full-time, who came from diverse professional backgrounds not necessarily rooted in retail. Every employee goes through extensive product training and is expected to help out wherever needed, from vacuuming the pool to trimming the palmetto bushes that line the store's meandering driveway.

"It's a fun place to work,'' said Michael Schenker, who sells kayaks, snow skis and standup paddleboards. "It's not that we just sell stuff. We enjoy it. We like to see people get excited about something that we all love.''

Employees know the products because they use them. A big perk of the job is that workers can borrow scuba gear and other equipment to try and enjoy. Once hired, they stay for years.

"We don't hire salespeople, we hire outdoors people,'' said Darry Jackson, who owns the store with his brother, Doug.

Many of Bill Jackson's workers started as customers. The owners say they typically don't hire people from Dick's or other sporting goods chains because they want more expertise.

"I don't know we've ever paid someone minimum wage,'' said Doug Jackson, adding that anyone making minimum wage probably isn't qualified to work at the store.

And contrary to many retailers, Bill Jackson's doesn't frown on paying overtime. Owners contend it's cheaper than hiring and training new people, and employees like the extra money. The store also gives workers an extra $1.25 an hour throughout the week if they work both Saturday and Sunday.

At the Container Store, seven Foundation Principles guide all aspects of the Dallas-based chain, from how people are hired to how managers communicate. They also show the store's more quirky side, like selling to the "man in the desert.'' Instead of seeking water, he's seeking a way to organize his shoes, for example, and he needs it desperately.

The store's employee-first culture is well-known throughout the industry. The Tampa store received 1,400 applications for the 55 openings and had almost no turnover in the first year, remarkable for a retailer.

Employees have good reason to show loyalty. They get a 40 percent discount on store items and 50 percent off Elfa closet systems, the company's top-seller. Even part-timers are eligible for health insurance.

For the most part, the staff lives what they sell. Everyone has the products at home and believe in the notion that boxes and shelves don't just organize space, they create time to do things you really want to do.

"We want people to go out with products that make them dance,'' said Jaimie Moeller, the manager in charge of the store's visual aspects.

Managers celebrate achievement on a daily basis. At morning huddles, workers get shout outs for designing a shopper's closet system or setting up a new store display. Go the extra mile for a customer, and you might get a thank-you note taped to your locker.

"We think that if you take care of your people, you take care of your customers,'' said general manager Marvin Price.

Having fun is a big part of the culture. That means candy in the break room — in Container Store jars, of course — and employee get-togethers after work. Every Valentine's Day, corporate celebrates National We Love Our Employees Day with gifts and balloons.

"Any reason we can have cake, we have cake,'' Price said.

The store hires a diverse workforce to ensure the employees reflect the shoppers they serve. Employees are all ages and backgrounds, from the woman who writes poetry about the Container Store to the man who moonlights as an actor in commercials. Notable for a retailer, the youngest employee is 21.

Given the rigorous training requirements, the company considers every worker an investment. Employees receive 125 hours of training during the first year and must have 40 hours just to start working the floor.

Over time, everyone becomes like family. Sometimes literally. Amanda Petrin, the manager of sales and training, met her future husband at the opening of Tampa's store. At the time, he was working at the Container Store in Miami. Now he's at the store in Orlando.

The two got married March 26. They didn't walk down a Container Store aisle, but co-workers showered them with cards and support.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

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