Why West Elm Wants to Be Your Handyman
Do you own a hammer? How about a stud finder, level, or ladder? West Elm, the home-goods retailer that sells everything from chandeliers to crab-shaped coathooks ($6.99), is retooling its business model to appeal to consumers who lack the hardware (or the temperament) for home improvement projects.
The brand, a branch of the Williams-Sonoma empire, just expanded a pilot program selling a slate of installation services for fixed fees. In nine cities, the company's in-house handymen will hang a set of curtains ($129), paint a 12-foot by 12-foot room ($379), or even mount a television ($129). One of the most popular offerings is the production of a “gallery wall” of artwork or photos, so the frames look like they were hung by Martha Stewart, rather than your batty aunt. West Elm offers bespoke services as well, tackling odd jobs for $129 an hour. Customers have even started calling on the company to assemble furniture purchased from competitors. "We had customers who were frustrated because they would buy a product and it would sit on the floor in a box for three months," says spokeswoman Abigail Jacobs. "We've been looking at all those pain points and trying to solve them."
In an industry zigging toward automation, e-commerce, and targeted advertising algorithms, West Elm's maneuver is a remarkable zag. The handyman business is about as old-school as it gets, and installations are labor-intensive and outside the company's competitive strengths, which lately have included nailing the mid-century modern trend and vanguard digital marketing. But one can't hang shelves with a Web widget or a nifty app. What's more, West Elm's service is aimed at consumers who are likely to be far more capricious than those who pop into the store for some throw pillows.
The strategy, however, is pretty straightforward. The more time West Elm employees spend with a customer, the more chances they'll have to pitch additional products and establish what every lifestyle brand covets: an emotional connection. Those shabby, old ceramic pots could be swapped for “mid-century turned leg planters” ($129 - $149). That ratty Ikea bath mat could be replaced with a cushy version with a whale on it ($29). "We knew that the best way to connect to people was to get into their space and understand their lifestyle," says Julie Unis, vice president of store operations. "They get inspired in the store, but sometimes that feeling is hard to transfer."
Indeed, the installation services are a natural extension of the free design consultations that West Elm started pitching in early 2012. The first West Elm handymen were hired in New York in the spring of 2013, and the company signed on employees who had both construction skills and an eye for design. Six months later, West Elm pushed the program into Los Angeles and Seattle. In the past six months, the expansion has grown to include Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia, Orange County, Calif., San Francisco, and Washington. Roughly one-third of West Elm's 72 stores now have handymen in-house.
There have never been more ways to find a reliable handyman. Porch.com, which teams with Lowe's, has built a Web platform to connect people with nearby professionals for landscaping, window installation, and even painting. Handymen pop up on the site's maps with information on ratings, prices, and even pictures of past projects. Services such as Angie’s List have added a new layer of accountability to the small-scale trades. For a few dollars a month, its members can mine a virtual registry of local small businesses with corresponding ratings and feedback. Meanwhile, Home Depot has its own roster of "handpicked" contractors.
But can Home Depot's hired guns weigh in on color swatches? West Elm says its handyman business is booming, in part, because its crew has some chops in decor and design. Jorge Bello, a West Elm handyman in New York, used to coordinate styling and decor for the company's large business accounts in Miami. "We are looking for a very unique individual," Unis said. "And we're equally competitive, if not better than similar services."
The company declined to provide financial details, but Jacobs said that consumers who pay for installations tend to buy more items and shop more often. Customers haven't balked at paying $129 an hour for help, although Angie's List says its customers typically pay about $83 per hour for handyman services.
West Elm is clearly doing something right. In the past eight quarters, it has posted an average same-store sales gain of 18 percent. That pace blows away its sibling brands, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, and bests the growth rate of every retailer in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index last quarter. Nike came closest with a 16 percent increase in same-store sales.
In short, making house calls may be a sort of antidote for bricks-and-mortar retail. West Elm's handyman push is happening as Crate + Barrel shutters its Manhattan flagship store. The retailer negotiated an early exit from its lease, according to the Wall Street Journal, because it saw rents in midtown Manhattan surging. Indeed, the shop is a casual stroll from the Upper East Side and the most affluent people in New York. Perhaps, if Crate + Barrel had visited their homes more often, they would have done the same.
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