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Amazon can't decorate your living room! Williams-Sonoma CEO styles a digital future

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan August 23, 2017
Who would you turn to for advice on redecorating your home? Williams-Sonoma wants to use digital tech to ensure it's the first name on the list.

While Amazon does really so many things really well, have you ever tried calling them and asking them if they could please come refurnish your living room?

It’s a feisty response to the inevitable 'What about the threat from Amazon?’ question that faces all retailers today, but Laura Alber, CEO of Williams and Sonoma makes a fair point. Assisting and consulting with customers with home decor needs is a major competitive differentiator for the brand and not something that an online pureplay can replicate - yet. She argues:

We know that our stores are competitive advantage and that our multichannel model especially in our industry will allow us to lead. As a result we have been working on several opportunities to maximize this competitive advantage. Across all brands, our retail presence offers customers an important source of inspiration and having experienced sales associates and in-home designers working through the complexities of an in-home design experience is a competitive advantage for us.

We've recently took our leading in-home design services to the next level with the launch of Design Crew a new complementary cross brand design service. The Design Crew initiative will offer our customers personal assistance from design professionals design products and services for a variety of unique needs leveraging our portfolio of brands in an integrated way. Our efforts are specially trained to help customers with many home requests such as decorating, renovating, entertaining, cooking and gift giving. This service further reinforces our commitment to provide outstanding service to our customers and deepens our relationship with both new and returning shoppers.

There’s also been some tech tooling-up going on as well in-store:

To enhance the customer experience in all of our stores, we've been investing in Point-of-Sale technology and scheduling tools which will provide operational efficiencies and elevated service levels. We've also been focused on retail optimization across our brands and have driven improved financial results from both closing underperforming stores and successfully remodeling or relocating existing stores.

Digital priorities

That said, while the stores and their expert staff are major assets, scoring “digital leadership” is a major priority, pivoting on a desire to improve customer experience and find new models of engagement. Alber says:

One of our key areas of focus this year is investment in new customer acquisitions to increase digital advertising. Year-to-date we have significantly increased our digital advertising investment and as a result we are seeing strong new customer accounts with higher traffic trends and increased orders. Our commitment to increasing our top of the funnel digital advertising spend has allowed us to reach more customers.

We've also experienced strong new customer growth in the key channels of paid search, display and social advertising. In an effort to drive engagement with our customers to relevance across all our brands we are expanding our one-to-one personalization efforts. We have experienced an uplift in engagement and higher margins in our new personalization based emails and we are seeing these same results translate to our site.

What that means in practical terms is a goal of ripling the number of personalized impressions delivered on Williams-Sonoma brand websites by the end of the current fiscal year. This will be enabled by both an expansion of personalization campaigns and improved customer identification, says Alber:

We have several high impact ecommerce initiatives going live throughout Q3. We are re-platforming our mobile experience leveraging the latest progressive Web App technology that will feature a highly engaging task performing app like experience. We are launching a redesign of our product information pages introducing improved functionality, product information and storytelling. We are taking our key loyalty program to the next level with an improved in-store experience, customer self-service options and capabilities that will enable us to introduce new and enhanced services for our key members.

There are some innovative pilots underway that are built around specific brands, but which, depending on the outcomes, are assumed to be applicable across the wider Williams-Sonoma portfolio. Alber cites the example of a ship-to-store initiative focused around PBteen’s college student customer base:

While the pilot is still in play early results are very positive both for the customers in terms of convenience and for our stores in terms of driving traffic. This has been a great test in advance of our Buy Online, Pick Up in-Store program that will be first launching in the Williams-Sonoma brand this fall.

Other initiatives may sound simple, but have delivered positive results, such as bookmarking online:

On our Pottery Barn site we introduced a new feature called Favorites that allows our customers to bookmark their favorite products across our desktop and mobile sites. We've already seen great response with over 600,000 favorites in less than six weeks and the directly attributable revenue has exceeded our expectations. We will feature out all brands this quarter.

But there are ‘sexier’ drives ahead, with an AI spin on some of them as Alber points to the launch of the Pinterest Style Finder tool last month:

This visual search tool is just one example of the artificial intelligence based solutions that we are working on. It is a great complement to the efforts we are driving on the augmented reality, this digitalization front across our brands where we already have 130,000 skills encoded in 3D that we are using both on our sites and in conjunction with our apps.

My take

The best ‘putting in its place’ remark about Amazon I’ve heard so far.

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