A West Elm Grows in Chelsea

Brent Felgner, Staff Staff, October 18, 2004

New York — Just two years old as a catalog and online presence and a barely a year into its shakedown cruise as a see me, feel me, touch me retailer, West Elm has opened its second store, coming home to Manhattan’s young and hip Chelsea neighborhood.

This store opened Oct. 4. The third opens Saturday in Oakbrook, Ill., just outside of Chicago. A fourth is scheduled to debut next month in Corte Madera, Calif., near San Francisco. And, next year, 12 to 15 stores are slated to open, including another next August in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, according to Beth Hirsch, a member of the store management team who was shortly departing for the Oakbrook opening.

The Chicago openings are significant. As late as last spring, plans for West Elm called for a developing bi-coastal presence and only two new stores were planned for this year. They all join the young merchant’s premier entry in Brooklyn’s DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood, which opened late last fall.

“We think the home is more important than ever,” Pat Connelly, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for parent company Williams-Sonoma, said during a Thomas Weisel Partners investors’ conference late last month. “We think consumers will continue to spend heavily on their homes. All of our market research says that.”

The Chelsea store is just around the corner and a few steps from Sixth Avenue’s Bed Bath & Beyond and The Container Store. Further, it’s only a block or so from its sibling, Hold Everything, an answer to The Container Store and another of the trio of emerging brands from parent Williams-Sonoma (Williams-Sonoma Home is the third). Of course, there’s also a Williams-Sonoma store a couple of blocks away.

West Elm in the midst of its target customer: fashionable, urban, 25-to-35 year olds, many in their very first apartments after getting out of college and joining the daily fray. Still trying to live the good life, they’re sometimes a bit budget challenged — they just don’t want to appear that way. West Elm is there to try and help.

To that end, it’s in a 10,000-square-foot space that runs through between 17th and 18th Streets, with entrances on each.It’s a store set to appear as a series of loft apartment rooms with a canvas of bare brick demi walls offset by rich wood accents against stark white walls. It’s suggestive. It’s clean. It’s open, bright and airy, something most people miss in a New York City apartment. The set offers an easy-to-breeze-through, “I like it. I want it. I’ll buy it,” kind of feel.

Certainly price points will not get in the way. Merchandise is not necessarily priced sharply — this isn’t meant to be a discount operation by any standard. But the price seems right and there’s no agonizing over good, better, best points. With rare exception, it’s one item, one size, one price across all styles and colors.

For example, among the five bedding vignettes, sheets sets were priced at $89, $99 and $119, twin, queen, king. Quilts hit at $119, $139 and $169. Towels were priced at $19 for a 28-by-55 bath, $12 for a 20-by-30 hand and a set of two wash cloths were the bait at $6.

Through the store, featuring home textiles, furniture and decorative accessories, there might be a thousand skus, but even that’s probably a stretch. The store takes pains to be uncluttered following a “narrow and deep” strategy.

Earlier discussion of moving away from its core palette has gone by the boards. Colors are dominated by naturals — mochas, plums and pestos — and, for those seeking something bolder, a bit of purple-ish accents.

For all intents and purposes everything was sourced: Turkey for towels, India and China for almost everything else in home textiles. Natural linen duvets, with a $159 king price point, were made in the United States.

And true to the Williams-Sonoma form, everything was private branded under the West Elm label.

West Elm, though, may already be starting to break out of its mold. The company is beginning to locate the stores in more suburban locations and has trumpeted its intentions to broaden its merchandise mix to appeal to a larger customer base.

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