The launch or rumoured launch in Australia by an international fashion apparel retailer has become a numbingly regular event. Speculation about how badly the bully boys of global retail, like Zara and Topshop, will beat up the local retailers has become a favourite sport of the retail experts.
Now, Williams-Sonoma's impending arrival switches the focus to a different kind of fashion – upscale home furnishings.
Williams-Sonoma, a retailer that has become ubiquitous in American shopping centres since its founding by Chuck Williams in Sonoma, California in 1956, is to move into a 2000 square metre space on a pedestrian mall adjacent to Sydney's Bondi Junction early next year.
But rest assured that it has not come to Australia to set up just one store.
Anyone associated with the retail industry – especially a small retailer with growth aspirations – should make Williams-Sonoma one of their first case studies. It is a remarkable example of how a specialty retailer can grow from one humble store into a multi-concept, multi-channel international powerhouse.
It has accomplished this using a step-by-step process of market segmentation, concept incubation, brand launch via catalogue/e-commerce and then finally, a measured store rollout. By opening stores at a slow tempo rather than helter-skelter, it has ensured limited damage in a couple of instances where a concept has underperformed and needed to be shuttered.
Laura Alber, the CEO, reportedly gushed about the company's prospects in Australia, observing, among other things, that there was only limited competition in the Australian market. This is a truly remarkable finding considering Australia's affluence and high rate of home ownership.
It's also an astute and correct one.
Alber doesn't mean there aren't a lot of home furnishings stores in Australia. She means that none are anywhere near as targeted to specific population segments and lifestyles as Williams-Sonoma is.
Williams-Sonoma has shown expertly over the years how to use catalogues and e-commerce for market research, and how this information can in turn be used to reduce real estate risk for retailers across the world. E-commerce is not just a sales channel but a way of understanding where the response to your product is strong enough to lob a chain of physical stores.
In this instance, Australia is Williams-Sonoma's strongest e-commerce market outside North America. (The company has e-commerce in approximately 75 countries and 44 per cent of its $US3.7 billion revenues in 2011 were derived from e-commerce and catalogues.)
This knowledge doesn't guarantee success for the company's Australian stores but it does lower the probability of it having to exit with its tail between its legs.
But what makes Williams-Sonoma such a masterclass in growth for ambitious retailers is its ability to segment consumer markets and develop individual retail concepts and products for each.
Williams-Sonoma currently operates 579 stores under five different banners and a further in North America. Four of these concepts – the namesake Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm – are to open cheek-by-jowl in the forthcoming Bondi Junction space.
While Williams-Sonoma itself sells upscale kitchenware, the other three sell furnishings to customers in different life phases. West Elm is the smallest of the four with only 40 stores, but possibly the most interesting and instructive from the standpoint of a retailer case study.
Initially launched as a catalogue in 2002, the first West Elm store opened two years later in the d.u.m.b.o ('down under the Manhattan Bridge') neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, where the local population included many aspirational, design-conscious, but not-quite-yet-affluent young professionals living in small walk-up apartments. The furniture was perfectly adapted to this lifestyle group – well designed, edgy, urban, compactly sized for small living spaces and priced accessibly for a professional household on the cusp of “making it” in New York without actually being there yet.
There's a market for that in Australia's biggest cities.
Williams-Sonoma will not open stores willy-nilly in Australia and it should not cause tremors among the existing home goods retailers in the market. But it will add design flair and choice for some underserved segments of Australian consumers.
And for entrepreneurs who want to understand how to grow a world-class specialty retail business – this is a great case study.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.