Not too long ago, I interviewed Christy Parra, who is the logistics director for The Container Store. The interview was for an article on the company’s deployment of a voice-directed picking system in its distribution center. But what struck me throughout our discussion was the context in which Parra framed the new technology: It had as much to do with the employees as it did efficiencies and cost savings.
“As a company, the first thing we consider in anything we do is: How is this going to help our employees?” Parra explained. “It’s very important that any new technology we install be something that is going to make life better for our employees, in addition to the company, our stores, and customers.”
Of course, The Container Store’s “employee-first” culture is legendary in the retail industry and has long been cited as one of the keys to its success. But I didn’t fully understand how totally ingrained the philosophy is throughout the organization until I spoke with Parra. She even made a point of telling me that the company had assured employees they weren’t going to be “automated out of a job” by the new technology.
“We try to be transparent as possible and make sure everyone knows the end goal,” Parra said. “So we held a meeting for everyone in the distribution center and made it clear at the outset that this (the voice-picking system) wasn’t about cutting anyone. Instead, it was about helping employees be safer and do their jobs better and allowing us, as a company, to stay ahead of our growth, keep pace with technology and be continuously evolving.”
So kudos to The Container Store for considering the human element in the technology it deploys. A lot of retailers “talk the talk” when it comes to how much they value their employees, but talk is cheap. The Container Store leads by example. (To read the article, "The Container Store Deploys Voice Picking” click here).
Not long after I interviewed Parra, I read an article in The Week by a reporter who went undercover to work the holiday rush in a giant warehouse operated for an online retailer (such DCs are either owned by the retailers themselves or by third-party logistics contractors). She wasn’t working for the logistics company or the retailer. Instead, she was hired by a temporary-staffing agency. While retailers have always used temp help in peak season, increasingly, the giant warehouses and DCs are now also using temps year-round.
It was an eye-opening article. I’m not that naïve—no raises, no vacations and no job security have long been part of the temp model and retail is no exception. But I was taken aback by the ambitious (for lack of a better word) picking goals that come with these jobs, as well as the intense scrutiny and reviews, and physical discomforts. I’ve often marveled at the superfast turnaround time some online retailers offer, at how quickly they could get a book or CD to my door so soon after I placed the order. If this article is any indication, I’m not marveling any longer.
More As I See It entries.