From Sephora to The Container Store: Unpacking success

By Lottie Watts
Published Jun 24, 2021

After two decades in leadership roles at Sephora Americas, Satish Malhotra is now CEO and president at The Container Store. He shares how he finds what motivates customers, how curiosity drives his work and more.

Here are a few questions, along with Malhotra’s answers (watch the video above for all “20 Questions”):

How have your various leadership roles prepared you for your role as CEO?

I was fortunate to have spent so much time at Sephora in a variety of different roles, in the back of the house with operations and then quite a bit of my career dealing with customer-facing businesses. Those two experiences shaped my perspective and formed my ultimate belief of always wanting to stay relevant to the customer needs.

With customers, you need to understand what’s motivating them. That is the framework I use when I think about decisions. Is this something that’s going to be valued by the customers that are receiving it – so much so that they’re willing to pay for it? If you use that lens, it provides a good sense of clarity for your decision-making process.

What experiences have made the greatest impact on your career?

One was the Sephora inside JCPenney concept. Customers would come in with their hard-earned money and were very discerning about their purchase. How in the world were we going to sell prestige makeup?

We realized that it wasn’t that the customer was not willing to spend. It was that they didn’t want to make a mistake with their purchase. That disposable income – they worked hard for it. And they were fearful they would buy the wrong product, and they couldn’t tolerate that. So we put a campaign in place to educate the consumer on the efficacy of the product, how to use it, how to apply it – so they could see the benefits. Over time, we built credibility and trust and found we had a new consumer who wanted to try and experiment with more expensive brands.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Making a meaningful difference. At The Container Store, myself and my teammates look to transform the lives of our customers through the power of organization, and that’s a really powerful purpose.

I experienced this firsthand moving from California to Texas, living in temporary housing, living out of a suitcase. I will tell you there were stressful moments in the Malhotra household as we couldn’t find things as we were trying to navigate this new city and new company. We decided to take one room at a time and just organize it, and I found it quite liberating. It was a joyful moment when I would enter my office and see everything arranged the way I wanted it. For many customers, they can experience the same thing when they’ve gone through their own transformational moment with organization.

How do you know when to “turn off” work?

I don’t know if I know how – I love what I do and I’m always a curious individual, whether I’m at the office or if I’m in an off-work environment.

When we go to shop, I love asking my teenagers what they experience in the store – the music, the clothing, the assortment. We entered a store, and there’s great outfits, and my daughter decided not to buy. I asked her why. She said, “Dad, it just doesn’t feel special. If I pick this up, I know there’s 1,800 of the same item sitting out there and I don’t want to wear it and somebody else wears it.”

It got me thinking how sometimes retailers try to get their inventory out on the selling floor, and that can be a turnoff for the customer because there’s not a sense of urgency that this item is going to go out of stock. Those are always learning moments that I take whether I’m at work or off work.

What is something you learned early on that has carried with you into today?

I am data hungry. I’m always looking at information and understanding trends, but I’m also validating that with my perceptions and other people’s perceptions.

It’s important to take that information, formulate the decision and then you have to actually make the decision. I can’t tell you how many people fall into this spinning wheel of a trap – they’re fearful to make the decision. You’ve got to take it, and then you assess. You’re continuing the cycle of learning.

Set yourself up for retail career success with the NRF Foundation Student Challenge. Upload your team’s submission for the business case competition by Oct. 10. Learn more about the opportunity to get real-world experience and review the full eligibility requirements here.

Related content

Nike merchant shares his path to success
June 10, 2021
Read more
BJ’s Wholesale Club CFO offers advice on reaching top roles
June 4, 2021
Read more
Grocery brand manager reflects on the transition from college to career
June 2, 2021
Read more