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One Size Fits All ... Not

Heath E. Combs, Carole Sloan -- Home Textiles Today, December 4, 2006

Folks in the world of home textiles often need to look beyond their borders for information, directional signals and the like. Often, it helps bring significant things into perspective.

A case in point. A number of interesting things emerged from the annual meeting of the American Home Furnishings Alliance last month. Among the most interesting tidbits was from the presentation made by Howard Lester, ceo of Williams-Sonoma.

Perhaps the most significant to the world of retailing is how he views the different pieces of his company. Each is a focused place, both in terms of product and price ranges. He is definitely not a believer in the "one size fits all" approach to retailing.

As an example, he plugs Williams-Sonoma, including the fairly new Williams-Sonoma Home, as the premium brand in the company's portfolio. It's followed by Pottery Barn in the good-to-better bracket, and West Elm for the mass market.

But even more interesting is how the company breaks out its major brands into sub-brands, as with Pottery Barn. From its beginnings as Pottery Barn, the store for a lifestyle look in home furnishings across the board, the brand has morphed into a number of powerhouses. There's Pottery Barn Kids, now a $600 million business; the catalog-only Pottery Barn Teen, Pottery Barn Bed & Bath that launched its first two stores (which include bedroom furniture) last month, and without much ado, a test program for Pottery Barn Baby.

As for West Elm, a concept designed for what he calls "the hipper" customer, there are now 22 stores, all after the initial launch of a catalog. Stores range from 10,000 square feet to a planned 40,000-square-foot unit in Washington, D.C. — and all this in the space of a few years. A key piece of Lester's presentation was the emphasis on the triple punch of store, catalog and Internet businesses — something that most companies in the home furnishings and especially the home textiles world have ignored.

The fact that some of Williams-Sonoma's most successful ventures have emerged from tests in catalog or Internet should be studied intensely.

And in a totally different vein, Keith Koenig, ceo of Florida-based furniture retailer City Furniture, discussed one of those subjects typically not discussed in polite society — namely how to differentiate one retailer from another. This differentiation challenge has been as critical in the world of home textiles as it is in furniture — and to be frank, in most every other segment of consumer products.

His telling remark was that customers coming into his stores are impressed with the store and quality of the furniture — and comment accordingly. Said Koenig, "It shows we have done a lousy job conveying this with our media."

As one who combs the papers weekly for home furnishings ads, home textiles or otherwise, he could not be more right. Just look at the ads from low to high end – they mostly send the same sale price message.

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