Recent Posts

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An open letter to Pottery Barn

Dear Pottery Barn,

This morning, I read a disturbing Wall Street Journal article about your attempt to re-brand yourself as more affordable with new "value" items. Your lowest-priced sofa now starts at $999, 30% below your next-priced sofa. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows you cannot buy a decent new sofa for less than $1000.

Your parent company, Williams-Sonoma, believes that "design and manufacturing improvements will help maintain good profit margins on the lower-priced products." Having owned my own home furnishings store, I know the only way to maintain those kind of profit margins is to buy merchandise of a significantly lower quality. This is a foolish move and your customers will catch on in no time flat. Sofas are supposed to last longer than 3 years.

The article then made mention of something that stopped me in my tracks - Pottery Barn is Williams-Sonoma's "worst performing brand in fiscal 2008 with a 22% decrease in comparable-store sales."

Last year marked "the third year of negative same-store sales for Pottery Barn, which generates roughly half of the San Francisco retailer's revenue and operating profit. The trouble started in mid-2006, and sales have worsened despite earlier efforts to reduce shipping fees and offer a wider selection of lower priced products at Pottery Barn's 202 stores, in its catalogs and on its Web site." Three years of negative same-store sales (the barometer of any retailer's financial health which compares year-to-year sales of individual stores)?!? To quote a classic movie,"You in danger, girl."

I was so concerned about this news that I immediately jumped over to the Pottery Barn website to check out your current collection. Starting at the new introductions, I browsed through and saw some major red flags.

You are seriously out of touch with today's design trends. Take for instance your red coral collection. Source Perrier introduced this theme in 1999, and every major retailer has abandoned it in the past 18 months.

PB's new pillow left, Source Perrier's decade-old item right.

Who is your wall decor buyer and how does this person still have a job? A $279 set of four cheap-o canvases that hang together to create a poorly rendered bicycle and a $169 crudely finished plane sculpture? Really? Really?

You also need to address your cheesy seasonal "theme-ing." Must every spring be celebrated with boatloads ('scuse the pun) of nautical crap?

The only people who buy this hideousness are menopausal women who wear Chico's and have second homes in planned communities in the Carolinas. And I tell you what, those second homes are hitting the market faster than you can say "Bernie Madoff with my money."

I know you're desperate for high-margin items to fill your floor, but you are losing your brand focus in a major way. Pottery Barn is not a stationers, a souvenir shop, a luggage store, or Frontgate. So drop the tacky fill-in invitations, ugly beach towels, plastic luggage, and the monogram-able cooler with built-in speakers (was your buyer high?).

We also need to talk about your pricing issues. Your "value for money" message is being muddled with inconsistency. The cherry blossom branch below retails for $64 (currently on sale for $44.99) each, while the faux potted lavender sells for $29. $64 for a single branch? C'mon now.

So what needs to happen for you to get your mojo back? Mistakenly, you believe that playing retail shell games is the answer. "Pottery Barn is also adding free design services in its stores, emphasizing its branded credit card's offer of no-interest financing for 12 months and planning more regular sales to generate shopper traffic."

What you need to do is concentrate on what customers see you as - the great mid-priced home furnishings retailer. Re-focus your efforts towards a clean American look (not that Country Living trunk of yuck) with a slight Euro edge (not those awful Louis ripoffs).

What am I talking about? Here are some great examples from your current collection.

I've been a fan since 1987 when I first walked into your Santa Barbara store. That's some loyalty that cannot be bought but can be lost if you continue down this path. Pottery Barn, I know you have it in you. There are flashes of design greatness amongst the fugly bits of desperation. Fire your head merchandiser and give me a call. I'll be back in the States this summer and looking for a job. I really don't want to see you become the next Z Gallerie.

PB's "Fish" pillow left, Z Gallerie's "Pescado" pillow right.

With all my love and an open wallet,

Mrs. Obvious

34 comments:

House of Slappy said...

Oh, SNAP! You wrote that so per-fect-ly, not to mention you had me at Chicos. Yes! All hail to Raina.

Kate said...

wow! the difference between the good and the bad is quite extreme. I've never been in a pottery barn but if all I'd seen was the pics from the top of this post, you wouldnt get me in there for love or money, and Raina, you know I have often dubious taste, so that is saying something!

Camilla @ Designalogue Blog said...

oh you go girl!

karly / design-crisis.com said...

I haven't even read this yet, but the title has me all excited! just wanted to let you know. I'll be back with more when I'm done

karly / design-crisis.com said...

Anyone who doesn't fire their merchandising department and hire you after that is on crack. But, then again, they did add the monogramed speaker tote to their collection, so, who knows.

Camilla @ Designalogue Blog said...

I would bet they are still way better than the majority of craptapular homewares stores we have here!

Sol Kawage said...

Raina I would buy stakes at any store you worked as merchandiser. I'd hire you as my personal shopper for christssssake. Hope they read your letter.

hello gorgeous said...

Oh, Mrs. O: How I love you so.

You have it right on. Don't make your crap cheaper. Make it nice enough so a person can put it in her home without apologizing for it. At a good price.

I think Ikea has the under $999 market solid.

Michele said...

Excellent take on what has been happening for a while. I too have been a customer (note - past tense) and very loyal, but about the time they started making craft and office work spaces I started to get confused. What really sent me off them was spring 2008 where they introduced so much color that the both the catalog and store was like tripping on some hallucinogenic. In fact I couldn't enter the store at all as it was too overwhelming. While I like color - it was way too much for me - but most important point was they were seriously off what they had been about. And to me it spelt panic marketing to try and get new customers. I do think they have lost their direction, so it is no wonder their sales are flat. I hope they read your letter and take note. Thanks for getting the scoop on something I have been wondering about.
Great blog by the way!!

susieq said...

Only thing I have to add is that PB went through years and years and collection after collection of heavy, dark, wood "Sonoma" furniture. Too much. And until recently, everything was burgandy, olive, and dark blue. Stuck in an icky rut.

Love to hear you tell it, Raina. Continue to speak truth to power!

Decorina said...

You have them exactly right. "Z Gallerie" indeed - you made me choke on my coffee this morning. They need you.

Robin said...

So true, so ture, so sad. I used to be a fan, but their aesthetic has become so homogenized in the past few years, and the quality is one step above Pier 1 and Target.

I do love that bedding in the last photo, might have to go check that out, even though the last thing I need is more bedding...

ps - remember the Friends episode where Rachel decorates her and Pheobe's apartment and Pheobe thinks everything is from flea markets and antique stores, but realy it as all PB? I think it is called 'The One With The Apothecary Table'

pps - my WV is "beast". You always give the best WVs, Raina.

drollgirl said...

dude. i hope they see this.

and i love how you mentioned CHICO'S in this post! it made me laugh out loud!

and i DO love the leather chair in this post, so all is not lost. i usually don't go in the pottery barn. it is expensive to me, kind of fuddy duddy, and not really that great at all. but they can do better if they try.

karly / design-crisis.com said...

UT, OH, this month's elle decor arrived today with a big fat spread on coral. Not the color.

*moggit girls said...

We love you.

Raina said...

Michele - Hello and welcome! Thanks so much for the compliments.

Robin - I do remember that episode, hilarious. And I have the word verification programmed to give the most excellent combinations.

DrollGirl - I crushing on that same chair.

Karly - Have you ever noticed that for every three steps House Beautiful moves forward, it seems to take at least one back?

erin@designcrisis said...

It's really a shame, because PB has potential. I love their lighting collections, and PB teen has more than a few steals and deals -- even for us fogies.

Sadly, they tend to clog up the good with disgusting knick knacks, and they have the most untalented room stylists possible.

Here's to hoping a new job awaits you!

pillow mint said...

i put my thomaspaul coral pillows 30% off. they still haven't sold.
maybe with the latest elle decor someone will snap them up!
i remember (a long time ago) having that giddy feeling when the new p.b. catalog came in the mail. now i barely flip through it thinking, "meh".....

Raina said...

Pillow Mint, Tear a page from that HB article out, stick it in a pretty frame and sit it next to the pillows. I used to do that in my store with slow movers.

Clare Cassar said...

I couldn't of said it better!! Thank you Raina. I used to be a Design Manager for the PBKids brand - and trying to get them away from the tired Pink and Green themes they've been running forever was like pulling teeth. I don't want them to fail either - but they really need to see what's going on around them.

Sadly I'm still not working but couldn't take the lack of progress!

Raina said...

Hello Clare Cassar and welcome!

I could bend your ear for days about retail merchandising. So nice to have an insider's perspective. Thank you for commenting.

Debi said...

Brilliant! I think you should attach this to your resume! :)

David said...

They DO need you Raina. I remember how excited we all were years ago when they came to Kansas City, and now it's the last place I'd think of to buy furniture.

I think on the whole they do mirrors well, and I have a lamp from a couple years ago that I still love. Past that they really don't have much I'd feel compelled to buy.

Chris said...

Raina, PB could also do MUCH better when it comes to media relations. A couple of times I've been excited by their new stock and by their sale prices and asked to take photos to feature on styleNorth.ca. But the manager said, "No, no, no" and referred me to head office. Their policy discourages positive blog coverage, which is wacko because if I'm excited I'll make my readers excited. The result is that I haven't don't a PB post in nearly a year. Their loss.

Raina said...

Hi ya Chris and welcome! Isn't depressing that some retailers just haven't received the message about modern technology's influence on culture?

Designer said...

Do I like everything that Pottery barn sells? Certainly not. But your critique of their merchandise and the reasons you offer up for their three year sales decline is uninformed, simplistic,superficial and bitchy.

The fact that you do not like nautical themed merchandise does not prove that it is a bad choice. Do you have sales figures that support your belief that they are not selling?

And how do you know that
"menopausal women who wear Chico's and have second homes in planned communities in the Carolinas" are not a viable customer base? Such throw away insults are not the sign of a thoughtful business person, nor a good merchant.

Owning a retail store does not take the same set of skills as designing, developing and importing an entire line of merchandise meant to appeal to a country as diverse and as large as the U.S. You exhibit no proof that you are qualified to critique their business or explain their sales results.

Your attempt to obtain employment with this flippant and "witty" letter will most likely fall on deaf ears. I suggest you re-think your approach to job hunting if you want good results. A thoughtful, educated and respectful study of your target's business would probably yield better results.

Trendspot said...

Great Post! Key point for me the comment by PB's President saying that "the company's adjustments to starting prices follow a thorough look across all Williams-Sonoma brands to determine where competitors had "moved down and were potentially outmarketing or outpricing us."
Lowering their prices will not solve the outmarketing problem.
They might be overlooking the fact that the most copied reatil concept in decades has just run its course and is on the downward side of the trend cycle.

Raina said...

Trendspot, Thanks for weighing in with a professional opinion. Your blog is great read about the business side of design. I'm off to enjoy more of your posts...

Leigh Chandler said...

I'm with many of you - used to love getting my catalog in the ninties. I actually bought some really great occasional tables that lasted for years. They bought millions of dollars worth of my bedding and textile designs (quilts, duvets and smocked curtains)in the very early 2000's and copied the other half that were presented to them. Everything was cheapened down and now I wouldn't sell to them if they were the last company on earth! They got greedy and opened their own manufacturing facilities in India and they haven't hit the mark since. I recently went into a store looking for a dresser for my daughter - not one of them had drawers that would pull out without Popeyes strength and yet the prices were sky high! We ended up with a perfect vintage one from the Goodwill store, for 12 times under what PB was asking for theirs. If they are to survive - they need to actually pay more than minimum wage to their designers, or better yet - hire you!

Raina said...

Thanks, Leigh, for adding a vendor's point of view to the discussion.

Everyone should go check out Leigh's linen and home collections. She has been featured in umpteen shelter magazines for good reason - her pieces are gorgeous!

Decorina said...

As usual, the single snippy post is from someone calling themselves "Designer" - who is really anonymous because there is zero information posted on their "profile". Get a life of your own before you critique our most excellent Raina.

And thanks to the commenter who reminded me of the Friends episode with Phoebe and the apothecary table. It was truly memorable.

Leigh Chandler said...

That's so sweet of you Raina, thanks! I do have some knowledge of the manufacturing and design end of my business. I would never bash any company that conducted business with scruples, unfortunately almost every big and a few small independents (you know who you are if you've stolen my designs!)is in this business for the money and not the love of it. I've always done this because it is my passion and if I can't sell beautifully made goods - then I will switch and keep trying, luckily I did just that by moving all production to the USA!

PutzFrau said...

You hit the nail on the head! I think just like Chico's, Pottery Barn knew it's target audience and knew that they would gulp down the overpriced crap they throw at them. However, those days are over.

Jill said...

"The only people who buy this hideousness are menopausal women who wear Chico's and have second homes in planned communities in the Carolinas..." fucking priceless!