In the midst of the pandemic, Williams-Sonoma has stood out as a company, its stock price reaching a new all-time high in January 2021, despite many businesses declining. Paired with its strength in e-commerce, the company’s ongoing success is due in large part to consumers staying at home more than ever before. Still, the company faces potential headwinds as the shift to online shopping impacts home furnishing sales and rivals like online furniture retailer Wayfair increase their market share. As a retailer known for its brick-and-mortar locations, can the brand keep up its success?
Correction (February 7, 2021): At 00:36 we misstated the date when WSM reached its all time high. The correct date is January 27, 2021.
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Why Work From Home Is Good For Williams-Sonoma
With families spending more time at home than ever before,
furnishing home offices and upgrading kitchens has become a
top priority for stay-at-home shoppers.
That has been great news for Williams-Sonoma.
The 65-year-old retailer sells home goods, high-end
cookware and furniture through its seven brands, including
Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and West Elm.
Thanks to a strong e-commerce business and demand for all
things home-related, the company has seen net revenue jump
22% and e-commerce revenue surge 49% in the third quarter
On March 27th, 2021, the stock hit an all-time high closing
price of $147, up
467% from its March 2020 low.
“There’s a lot of secular trends that are highly supportive
of our business right now, from the interest in the home, to
the interest in cooking, to the e-commerce acceleration,
youknow, the fragmented market and focus on sustainability.”
But according to analysts, the company known for its
high-quality products faces potential headwinds as home
furnishing sales shift even further online and rivals, like
online furniture retailer Wayfair, increase their market
share. “Again, the controversy around Williams-Sonoma is
they’re not Amazon; they’re not Wayfair; they’re not
restoration hardware, all of which are in some ways more
companies. Williams-Sonoma is a very exciting company.
They’re doing a lot of fantastic things that are much
better than traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.
But there are other competitors out there that seem to get
investors a bit more fired up, I would say.”
“So the big questions that we’re getting from investors
these days are: How long can the top line strength persist?
Can the company meet all demand that it’s seeing?
So that’s an area that we didn’t discuss.
And then what does the margin profile of this company look
like in a couple of years as more and more sales shift
online?” So can Williams-Sonoma maintain its momentum?
And what happens to the brand’s brick-and-mortar locations
during the remainder of the pandemic?
Williams-Sonoma got its start in 1956.
Following a trip to Europe, Chuck Williams, a former
airplane mechanic and carpenter with a passion for cooking,
came up with the idea for importing high-quality French
cookware to America.
Out of a former hardware store in Sonoma, California,
Williams-Sonoma was born.
From the late 1950s to early 1970s, Williams introduced
American kitchens to culinary favorites like cast
iron pots from Le Creuset, cutlery for Wusthof and cookware
But it was the 1972 launch of a “Catalog for Cooks” that
was an inflection point for the company, launching its
The first Williams-Sonoma catalog had a circulation of
By the late 1970s, Americans’ attitude towards food was
Healthier diets, the availability of ethnic dishes and the
popularity of appliances like food processors were on the
rise. Sensing an opportunity, Oklahoma entrepreneur, Howard
Lester, bought the small retailer in 1978
and is credited with transforming it into a home
As of January 21st, 2021, the company had a market cap of
almost $10 billion.
“The catalog business enabled Howard Lester and his team
over the years
to test out new brands and to figure out what the
receptiveness would be like in different towns
before he would go in and open up a store.
There was a period of time where I think being a catalog
retailer was perhaps viewed as a bit of
being a dinosaur.
But it has proven to pivot well into their e-commerce
In 1983, Williams-Sonoma went public.
At the time, the company was making its first foray out of
the kitchen, buying a gardening catalog business and
building its existing mail order business.
The brand took an even bigger leap in 1986, buying Pottery
Barn and launching the Pottery Barn catalog.
In the mid 90s, both Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn were
getting bigger and the product selection wider.
In an effort to reach a new online audience,
Williams-Sonoma launched its e-commerce site in 1999.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, Williams-Sonoma was
expanding again with a variety of new brands and catalogs,
including Pottery Barn Kids, Pottery Barn Teen and
furniture retailer West Elm.
And in 2010, Laura Alber took over as CEO.
“You know, I’ve been with the company 24 years, and when I
walked in the door, we were 40% catalog at the time.
And so because of that catalog heritage, when the internet
came along, it was very easy for us to make that transition,
because we had the ability to ship directly to a customer,
and we also had a wonderful house file, knew how to market
one-on-one, which is really different than marketing in a
As of February 2020, Williams-Sonoma had 614 stores in the
U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK,
and it had 129 franchised stores abroad.
Net revenue for 2019 was $5.9 billion dollars, up 11% from
The home goods market in the U.S.
is a $300 billion dollar industry.
According to an IBIS World Industry report, in March 2020,
the biggest brick-and-mortar home furnishing stores in the
U.S. where Bed, Bath & Beyond, HomeGoods, Williams-Sonoma,
RH, Crate & Barrel, and Pier 1
Imports. The remaining 39% of the market are a mix of
smallto medium-sized companies.
Covid-19 and social distancing have had a big impact on the
brick-and-mortar home good retailers.
In February 2020, Pier 1 filed for bankruptcy and announced
in May it was winding down its business, due in part to the
The company reemerged in late 2020 as an online seller.
But while retailers initially saw home furnishing sales
plummet, companies that have their digital marketplace in
order have benefited from consumers stuck at home,
upgrading kitchens and redecorating living rooms.
“And suddenly we’re at home.
We’re at home with our kids, we’re working from home, we’re
doing all these things, and we’re cooking from home, because
we’re afraid of taking out or going to get meals.
And we realized that, Americans realize that our homes are
not equipped for what we’re having to do.”
“Big picture wise, if you think about the consumer’s
discretionary income, they spend a fair amount of money
on travel and entertainment and restaurants historically.
We’re seeing spending levels on those categories decline by
And those categories are more than four times the size of
the home furnishings and home improvement
category, really. So it doesn’t take much spending shift
from those categories to home furnishings
and furniture to really move the needle.
So that’s really a boon for the category.”
IKEA, the Swedish furniture maker, said online sales
increased 45% from September 2019 to August
2020. In January 2021, Bed, Bath & Beyond reported its same
store sales increased for the second consecutive
quarter in a row, due in part to digital sales surging
In the three months ended October 31st, 2020, Target saw
revenue in its home furnishings and decor category
increase more than 27% from the year prior.
And in August 2020, online furniture store Wayfair posted a
profit for its second consecutive quarter since going public
six years earlier.
But Williams-Sonoma may have benefited the most.
With an already strong digital presence in November 2020,
Williams-Sonoma announced third quarter revenue rose 22% to
$1.7 billion dollars, driven in part by a jump in
“We’re one of the only retailers who did not furlough anyone
during the pandemic.
We kept everyone doing something or just paying them.
And this has really been something that has paid off now a
lot, because the people that
we had working for us are so well-trained.”
And with more people shopping online, Williams-Sonoma
digital sales climbed 49% in the third quarter of 2020 and
accounted for 70% of all revenue.
“Williams-Sonoma is very well-positioned because of its
First, its Williams-Sonoma brand being focused on the
kitchen and housewares
was extremely well-positioned early on, because that’s what
people were shopping for: how to do things in the kitchen,
cook more at home, bake, etc.
And then secondly, there are other brands, including West
Elm and Pottery Barn, are where the consumer is really
shopping for home goods now.
They want furniture.
They’re redoing their rooms to make them more comfortable,
to work at home, to play at home, to exercise at home.”
With its mix of retail stores and a savvy digital presence,
Williams-Sonoma has seen positive same-store sales growth in
the 15 quarters from April 2017 through October 2020.
“I don’t really buy into the theory of the retail
You know, even pre-Covid, this was more a story of finally
the culling of the week,
making room for those who are more capable or up-to-date to
And I think even before Covid, Williams-Sonoma and their
set of businesses, I
think has been benefiting from that culling.”
Williams-Sonoma had net revenue of $5.9 billion dollars in
Home furnishings brand, Pottery Barn, made up almost 38% of
the company’s net revenue at $2.2 billion dollars.
Furniture retailer West Elm had net revenue of $1.4 billion
dollars in 2019, making up 25% of the company’s net
sales. Specialty kitchen retailer Williams-Sonoma made up
18% of revenue.
Pottery Barn Kids and Teen accounted for 15% of sales, and
the remainder came from lighting store Rejuvenation and
online gift buying site, Mark and Graham.
According to analysts, two areas where Williams-Sonoma
excels is by having a deep understanding of their core
customer and meeting that consumer where he or she wants to
“Of course, the key here, beyond their merchandising, it’s
their ability to meet the customer where the customer wants
to shop.” The company is also invested heavily in tech.
In 2017, Williams-Sonoma acquired Outward, a 3D-imaging
company that allows consumers to visualize how high-priced
furniture will look inside of their homes before
Based in San Francisco, the company has benefited from its
close proximity to Silicon Valley.
So what does that e-commerce business mean for the future
of Williams-Sonoma’s brick-and-mortar stores?
Consumers looking to purchase mid- to high-end furniture
often go to stores to experience the product firsthand.
Retail locations also have the ability to provide easy
access for online order pickups.
As of 2019, retail store revenue accounted for about 44% of
“Our stores are at competitive advantage to our digital
It’s not minus stores; it’s plus stores.
And they play an important role in differentiating our
offerings to the customer.
They’re experiential, they offer customers the convenience
of also omnichannel services, which you can’t
not remember. You have to remember that, if you don’t have
stores, you can’t do those things like buy online, pick up
in-store, buy online ship to store, new stores as many DC’s.
And we are going to continue to invest in our stores.”
However, during the first quarter earnings call in May 2020,
Williams-Sonoma CEO Albor said the company’s expecting to
close about 60 of its more than 600 stores.
According to analysts, fewer stores will allow the company
to save on things like rent and labor and allow some of
those sales to shift to online.
“I think that Williams-Sonoma, looking out over the next
three to five years, they’re probably going to get pretty
selective about which stores they decide to keep and get
even more aggressive at pruning back their real estate,
which could improve costs and improve margins.
And, of course, you know, benefit shareholders if they do
“We’re going to have fewer, but better stores.
At the same time, we have, you know, for the next three
years, 50% of our leases coming up for renewal.
This is a very, very strong position.
And we’ve raised the bar on profitability and we’re going
to keep the stores that are relevant and great
centers over the deals makes them.”
According to analysts, store closures, investments in
e-commerce and tech and Williams-Sonoma’s ability to attract
and retain customers could leave the company in a much
better position than its competitors coming out of the