Housewares chain Williams-Sonoma is remaking itself as an Internet company.
Williams-Sonoma, the 55-year-old housewares chain known for its meticulously arranged stores and baking demonstrations, is cooking up a new strategy: remaking itself as an Internet company.
Web orders are already the fastest-growing source of revenue for the San Francisco-based company, and now it’s preparing to make its e-commerce sites global by the end of next month, Chief Marketing Officer Patrick Connolly said last week. Williams-Sonoma, which also owns Pottery Barn and West Elm, will invest tens of millions in the project.
“We are absolutely obsessed with the Web right now,” Connolly said. By the end of next month, the company’s e-commerce site will go live in more than 75 countries.
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Brought over from running Pottery Barn in 2010, one of President and CEO Laura Alber’s top aims was to beef up Internet offerings, especially in light of the housing downturn and recession.
The Internet gives Williams-Sonoma a way to target international consumers without building as many brick-and-mortar stores — part of a plan for direct sales to reach as much as 50 percent of revenue in the next five years.
The chain is now limited to the U.S., Canada and a handful of locations in the Middle East. With the global economy rebounding, wealthy overseas shoppers have more money to spend on higher-end cookware and furniture.
The challenge for Williams-Sonoma is rival housewares chains are doing the same thing. Pier 1 Imports expects to complete its expansion into e-commerce by next year, while Sur La Table revamped its Internet business in January, adding product recommendations and other features.
Williams-Sonoma’s closest e-commerce rival in housewares and home furnishing is Crate & Barrel, according to Internet Retailer Magazine.
“What they and other retailers are starting to figure out, is that their stores are more showrooms, and a lot of their transactions are happening online,” said Brian Nagel, an analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.
Williams-Sonoma also has to contend with Amazon.com, the world’s largest Internet retailer, which has expanded its range of housewares in recent years. Amazon’s sales jumped 38 percent to $9.86 billion last quarter, topping analysts’ predictions.
At Williams-Sonoma, e-commerce revenue rose 27 percent last year, helping the company return to growth after two years of declines. The housing slump had taken a toll on the business because there was less demand for new furniture, linens and cookery. Many consumers also shifted to less-expensive retailers during the recession.
The company is now in turnaround mode, boosted by the Internet and increasing consumer spending on luxury goods, Nagel said. He raised his price target for Williams-Sonoma’s stock 21 percent last month to $51.
In the fiscal year ended Jan. 30, total revenue rose 13 percent to $3.5 billion — the highest level since 2007. Profit more than doubled last year to $200.23 million. The company estimates that fiscal 2011 revenue will range from $3.64 billion to $3.72 billion.
Online purchases reached $1.2 billion in 2010, making it the company’s most profitable and fastest-growing segment. Williams-Sonoma will spend at least $40 million this year on e-commerce and the supply chain that supports it, and has created 100 positions to build that part of the business, Connolly said.
“Over the past several years we’ve taken it up a notch, really from being a catalog company with websites, to embracing the Web and becoming an Internet company,” he said.
Williams-Sonoma added several features to its website last year that it says increased sales, including a feature called Williams-Sonoma Reserve that offers free shipping on most items for an annual $30 fee.
The retail recovery has made e-commerce companies more attractive to acquirers. That’s raised the potential that Williams-Sonoma could draw a takeover bid — possibly from a buyout firm. At least 20 U.S. e-commerce companies entered deals to be acquired this year, compared with 13 in the year-earlier period, according to Bloomberg data. Such deals have fetched premiums of more than 100 percent over market values.
EBay announced plans in March to acquire GSI Commerce for $2.4 billion. GSI, which hosts retailers’ websites, will help eBay compete with Amazon. Walgreen, meanwhile, is spending $429 million to buy Drugstore.com, helping the chain shore up Web offerings.
“The thing that’s become very clear over the last 30 or 60 days is that Internet-related assets are in very high demand,” says Matt Nemer, an analyst at Wells Fargo who covers Williams-Sonoma. “This is one of a select few of companies that’s really good online, and that could have value to a lot of potential players.”
Connolly declined to say whether the company has received takeover offers.
“We do have some incredible assets in e-commerce and in our supply chain, but we’re thinking more about how to grow our business, not how to be acquired by somebody else,” he said.
Most rivals aren’t as far along in expanding online.
Pier 1, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is aiming for the Internet to contribute 10 percent of revenue within five years.
Seattle-based Sur La Table, with more than 80 stores in the U.S., revamped its e-commerce business in January. It now gets about a 10th of its sales from its online and catalog orders.
Sur La Table is adding features to its website such as product recommendations based on a customer’s search and purchase history, as well as electronic gift cards, said Eli Winkler, vice president of marketing at the company.
Most consumers prefer to at least research items online, even if they buy the products in stores, said Van Baker, an analyst at market-research firm Gartner.
“I don’t think any retailer can really afford not to have an e-commerce presence,” Baker said.