Williams-Sonoma CMO talks the economy, branding and the online/offline battle

2 Comments | This entry was posted in eCommerce, Education, Events, Marketing, Retail Companies, Retail Trends

As someone who has been working in retail direct marketing for more than three decades – quite possibly longer than anyone else in the room at today’s Retail Innovation & Marketing ConferenceWilliams-Sonoma CMO Pat Connolly has a tremendous amount of insight on retail, traditional marketing, and how the internet can help retailers save money and increase their brand.

Williams-Sonoma CMO Pat Connolly

With an in-house database of 55 million people (which Connolly says is “almost all the people who have ever bought from us”) and catalog circulation that surpasses all popular food magazines, Connolly shared Williams-Sonoma’s strategy on reaching the customer through various touchpoints with a packed room of retailers.

Here’s what Connolly had to say about…

The economy.

From a business perspective, the economy has been permanently reset, he said, suggesting that it will take at least five years for the economy to get back to where it was in its peak. But, as Connolly said with a laugh, “It’s not going to take us five years; it’s going to take the other guy five years.”

Instead of being able to rely on sales growth because the economy is growing, retailers will be required to grow sales by gaining market share. “If the market’s not growing, that growth is going to have to come at the expense of someone else,” he said. And, certainly, that’s a more challenging prospect.

However, Connolly said, the company is well positioned to take advantage of the current climate. Because e-commerce is about 30% of the company’s total revenues and the most profitable part of the business, early efforts with the catalog – everything from having photos and copy for plenty of web content to a company-wide understanding that bickering between different channels was not acceptable – will help them down the road.

Connolly is also optimistic. “The home remains the center of people’s lives,” he said. “If you ask them what says the most about them, it’s the home they live in. When consumer sentiment and the economy begins to improve, people will spend on their homes.”

Branding, in 50 words or less.

“At its core, retail is about understanding and anticipating consumer needs. Your brand is nothing more than what people think of when they think of you. And the strength of your brand is measured by the degree of trust that consumers have with it.”

The importance of creating a community.

Connolly is a big believer in what he calls, “people like me.” We all appreciate and respect the opinions of other people who share our interests, he says, so one reason why Williams-Sonoma launched product reviews several years ago was because their customers respect the opinions of other customers. (As a side note, Connolly said product reviews have been incredibly successful at improving conversion.)

Of course, new tools in building communities, like Facebook and Twitter, will also be a huge topic of conversation here over the next few days. When using social media to create communities with customers, Connolly said, it’s important that retailers think carefully about how they want their brand to be presented away from their website and “be very careful that it doesn’t end up with something [you] didn’t plan.”

Being seen as cutting-edge.

“I think we like to project the aura that we’re a sophisticated direct marketer. If we are ahead, it’s only short-term. We’ll get run over by everybody in this room if we don’t try to move forward as fast as we can.”

Nit-picking between e-commerce and retail store teams.

“Everyone in our company in every channel is totally committed and embraces the multichannel concept,” he said, passionately stating that there are “no inter-channel politics.” People inside the company understand that each channel benefits the other.

So while store personnel may be perturbed by the mail-order return that will impact their bottom-line, they also know that the email addresses they’re collecting will be used to market what’s happening in local stores. Perhaps the fact that Williams-Sonoma has been a multichannel retailer longer than most is one reason this common battle does not seem to be waging inside the company.

The power of e-commerce.

Connolly’s keynote ended with a stirring call-to-action for the 600 or so people in the room, where he discussed the power of branding, why retailers should “think of the current economy as a gift,” and how they should be leveraging new ways to connect with customers. Here’s part of what he said:

“I think the internet provides incredible ways to enhance a frictionless shopping experience and build that trust with customers. If there was ever a time for you to advance ecommerce in your company, it’s now. If there was ever a time for you to break down the political barriers between the channels, it’s now. And if there was ever a time for you to get a seat at the table and get more of your fair share, it’s now. I think we have an opportunity to seize the moment, and no one is a better position to do that than you are. Right now.”

His closing remarks were so good, in fact, we tracked down the video of the last five minutes of his keynote presentation. Here’s hoping you’re as inspired as we were.

Posted in: eCommerce | Education | Events | Marketing | Retail Companies | Retail Trends and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Posted March 4, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Great work Ellen and what a super snapshot of retail reality by Mr. Connolly – the “legend”.
    His line “The home remains the center of people’s lives…” is a point that really tells us the secret of the next 10 years. The home is becoming more and more of the center of people’s lives and they have more and more ways to shop from that home.

    It is happening at my house and the evolving or growing issue is “how much is shipping for that and when will it arrive?” This tells me that as retailers expand the ecommerce channel they really need to dive into that home and listen for issues make the shopper shift from one brand to another.

    One of my kids picks the retailer based on ship time and cost. Another is purely on the trust side – they only trust certain retailers. The only thing these shoppers share is my credit card!

    Great session and hats off to WS and Mr. Connolly.


  2. Posted March 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Ellen, great piece, loved the video you linked to it. I liked it so much I blogged about it today at http://cisjustaletter.com/2010/03/04/williams-sonomas-cmo-on-ecommerce/ mentioning both articles and thanks to NRF. We can’t always all attend each event, and this way you spread the learning and insights for us all to take in and learn from.

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