Currently the biggest drugstore chain in Europe with over 55,000 employees, the German brand dm-drogeriemarkt is renowned for its innovative methods and challenging ideas, leading it to become after 42 years of existence, one of the most interesting business models in Germany, and possibly, the world. Most distinctively is the company’s trainee educational plan, which comprises theoretical classes, ‘learning by working’, and especially a large-scale cultural programme, the Abenteuer Kultur (The Cultural Adventure) through which, theatre contributes to transforming the drugstore.
The Abenteuer Kultur programme was established in 2001, after one of dm’s founders, Professor Goetz Werner read about the growing decline of verbal communication within the younger generation, due to the increasing popularity of new media and technology and how the most basic medium of communication – the oral form – was consequently suffering. “How terrible is it, remarked Werner, we are a big drugstore chain providing employment for many young people who are interacting with customers on a daily basis, yet they don’t know how to do it”. His observation lead dm on a quest to create educational opportunities to improve the employee experience, resulting in the inception of the Abenteuer Kultur.
Bi-annually and over the course of eight days, new dm trainees throughout Germany and Austria have the opportunity to experience performing arts firsthand, through the combination of a workshop, mise-en-scène and performance. The programme is prepared and supervised by professional artists working in pairs – theatre directors, writers, choreographers – many of whom have already been working for the dm cultural programme for several years.
At the start of every workshop, a theme is proposed based upon which trainees select a text to perform, usually extracted from classic plays, epic lyrics or poems, encouraging trainees to step outside their every day cultural experiences such as movies, reality shows and cartoons, and venture into the unknown. On the last day, following a series of rehearsals, the employees perform on stage in front of their colleagues and families. This is the experience of around 1,500 trainees yearly.
“We are making a meaningful contribution beyond selling toothpaste”
Needless to say, the implementation of such unusual corporate activity faced mixed reception at first: many employees never imagined themselves playing on a stage and were not particularly enthusiastic about discovering their hidden talents. However, nowadays the programme has become one of the key reasons why every year, thousands of school graduates choose to begin their careers with the German company.
The Abenteuer Kultur programme is about more than just improving verbal communication in the working environment, it equips trainees with valuable lifelong skill sets, as Werner explained “we are making a meaningful contribution beyond selling toothpaste”.
On the one hand, the creative process benefits participants, challenging them on a number of levels. The trainees learn improvisation techniques, corporal expression, decision making and how to express themselves verbally and nonverbally, which encourages them to be less afraid of making mistakes and to come out of their comfort zones.
One participant said that before attending his first Abenteuer Kultur workshop, he would prefer to work in the back of the store, but the experience of being on stage gave him a liking for having contact with clients and helping them brings him great satisfaction.
On the other hand, over 250 professional artists also benefit from being involved with one of the largest corporate cultural programmes in the country. Jennifer Ocampo, a Colombian-born choreographer works with theatre director Gregor Grüneberg for the Abenteuer Kultur, together they also develop intercultural projects with Native Indian communities in Colombia.
Ocampo values working for this programme, stating that it is also an adventure for her insofar as her artistic work can benefit others within a social dimension.
Under her leadership, the trainees are in safe and experienced hands: Ocampo trained at the prestigious Folkwang University of Arts and the Tanztheater Wuppertal when the celebrated Pina Bausch held the position of director, and even performed in her pieces. While professional dancers pay to attend her workshops, dm employees are fortunate to take part in them for free as part of their professional training.
Ocampo has seen that contemporary dance enables the trainees to “be immersed into a kinetic environment, where their imagination, senses and physical abilities are awaken and set consciously”. During these workshops, she explains that “dance is practiced with the trainees not only as an artistic or aesthetic form, but also as a mean of expression which, through the body and its movement, develops into an intense process”. Ultimately, she is always pleased to find that at the end of their ‘adventures’, the participants “gain better self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as a positive perception of their own bodies”.
dm’s educational plan fits within a wider conceptual approach to employment, with an emphasis on Anthroposophy, the Philosophy of Freedom established by Rudolf Steiner in 1902. Anthroposophy postulates that the spiritual world is accessible through the development of free will based on inner experiences, especially those that occur in the creative activity of the independent thought.
In fact, future dm-managers are themselves encouraged to receive further training at the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, a German institution which follows the concept of Anthroposophy and the Waldorf Pedagogy. While dm strives to make its employees morally responsible through these training programmes, in turn it recognises its morally responsibility for its workers. The methods of integration of new employees, and thus the growth of the company itself depends on the company’s ability to evolve on human and cultural levels. It sounds idealistic, but it is in fact dm’s current working model, which is beginning to influence other companies to reshape their own business structures, attitudes towards employees and retail approach.
Despite being the biggest drugstore chain in Europe, dm still manages to establish itself as a company rooted in respect for its workers, something that goes against the tendency for the retail environment to be impersonal. During the cultural programme, trainees learn to work as a team and see the results they can achieve by relying on each other and pushing their own boundaries. At the end of each project, dm employees applaud their fellow peers and celebrate the new skills learnt during the creative process, earning them the reward of social and professional acceptation. This may also be dm’s solution to hiring strangers and integrating them into their strong team or ‘family’ – as some employees refer to it, binding this ‘family’ together. These educational plans clearly contribute to diminishing the need for extra supervision, as employees demonstrate that they feel more responsible and interested in their jobs. This also serves to bring on a sense of entrepreneurship within the employees. Dm strongly believes in introducing the freelancing model into the scheme of the chain, while promoting a sense of belonging. Dm wants them to act as ‘freelancer-employees’: it’s you who make things work in this company, it’s you who bring the clients back to the (your) shop. The employees feel like they are contributing and not just serving, improving their feeling of self worth.
Customers also profit from this retail model, a service with human faces and independent minds, from people that can interact, advise and find solutions autonomously.
On a larger scale, society also benefits from a retail model such as this, as it goes against the grain of soulless quests for profits, consequentially poor service and bitter, inattentive employees.
What if shopping became a more human, creative and experiential activity, where healthier employees both physically and mentally could assist consumers in a more conscious and enthusiastic way?
Initiatives to make shopping more human or sensitive are appearing sporadically here and there, but are usually focused in the advertising and marketing benefits. Some of these are developed to encourage consumers to think about the future of shopping or the “what if…”. For example, the idea of partying in a shop became the very concept of the Disco im Supermarket event, which will take place in Berlin, on the 7th of November 2015 in one branch of the German supermarket chain, Kaiser’s.
It is not that consumers are expecting parties or necessarily wish to be entertained, but introducing surprising changes from the routine can bring a bit of fun and warmth into the often mundane retail environment. Such strategies also serve brick-and-mortar stores to create some resistance against the digital, and somewhat impersonal e-commerce, calling back customers to shop in the physical realm and be attended by real people with an understanding for the human condition.
Facts & Numbers
3,224 shops in 12 European countries
€7 billion euro sales in Germany and over €9 billion European sales in 2015
dm has one of the 10 most popular Facebook accounts in Germany, with currently over 2 million likes, and up to 8 million people reached with just a single post.
In 1985, dm began its training programme – 30 years later, 3,600 employees are enrolled throughout Germany, including 1,900 trainees in nine apprenticeship and five study programmes.
Every year since 2001, dm has been receiving the highest rating of “global satisfaction” nationally in the food retail category by Kunden Monitor, the German market-monitoring agency.
In September 2014, dm-founder, Professor Goetz Werner was awarded the German Founders’ award for lifetime achievement, considered as the most important award for outstanding entrepreneurship in the country.
In 2015, more than 220,000 people applied to work for the company
In 2015, 14 years after its inception, over 1000 theatre workshops have been carried out as part of the Abenteuer Kultur, far beyond the company’s original expectations.
Written by José Fernando Andrade and Liana Gilmanova