How West Elm Partners With Casper, Airbnb, And Others To Drive Local Store Visits
At the local level, West Elm emphasizes autonomy for individual locations to get the word out on social channels.
Housewares chain West Elm operates 98 outlets around the world, but since 2013, the idea of thinking “local” has been a major part of how the Williams-Sonoma brand sets itself apart from rivals and drives in-store traffic.
Separate from its main brand, West Elm LOCAL has grown to support more than 800 makers and designers around the world, showcasing over 6,000-plus products sold in over 85 West Elm stores.
The Challenge: Scaling Local
In a conversation at non-profit creative space LMHQ’s offices with the NYC Downtown Alliance’s Behind The Curtain quarterly speaking series, West Elm’s Ella Tay, director of Brand Marketing + Partnerships, and Mo Mullen, Director of Business Development for LOCAL, discussed the nature of a multinational chain collaborating with others to build solid roots around its locations.
The pair talked about the the evolution of West Elm’s local strategy and how working with outside startups like artisan-focused e-commerce site Etsy, online mattress purveyor Casper, and lodging-share platform Airbnb helped drive business in specific areas for all parties.
“I joined West Elm seven years ago,” Tay said. “At the time, the focus was on store events. “At the time, there was no fixed culture for what in-store events meant. It was all about product sales and the question stores had was, ‘What do my customers care about?’ As time went on, changing the culture around events, making sure we were budgeting properly, and that the people handling the events had a passion and personality to drive in-store events.”
Early examples of in-store events included turning an outlet in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood into a “bachelor pad decorating class,” while an Emeryville, CA, Wesr Elm became an art gallery featuring a local artist for a night.
After a year of hosting more events, Tay faced a question: how does West Elm scale these events at its varied locations? The challenge of balancing national imperatives from the marketing team while retaining a sense of local identity was not an easy one to solve.
An initial solution was found in collaboration with Etsy on pop-ups in 2010, Tay said.
“This started as a one-day event where local Etsy sellers would come in and have their products featured. We eventually extended it to Toronto, Austin, LA, event Australia,” Tay said.
“We learned that with the right partner, we could scale a local experience to other areas,” Tay continued. “Two, we learned that our customers respond to handmade products and they care where the products are from. It gave us a template for how to scale local, amplify our efforts in other places.”
Mullen joined West Elm in 2013 and was first introduced to the brand as partner. A co-founder of a company called Maker Maker, a production and distribution marketplace for designers with a focus on hotels and retailers, Mullen struck deals with West Elm’s Brooklyn and Atlanta shops as a showcase for her clients wares.
“Both the Atlanta and Brooklyn/Dumbo stores were both active in their respective local communities,” Mullen said. “We helped them build permanent product collections that were unique to their stores. It taught us how to be a better partner with small business.”
Special events were viewed as a way to highlight West Elm’s relation to the local community of both designers and customers. But by 2014, merely hosting events wasn’t generating enough interest. It was time for a new plan of attack.
“Expanding the role of brand partners at the local level involved looking beyond events,” Tay said. “It also began to involve social campaigns, content swaps, loyalty programs, and email marketing.”
In 2014, among the brands West Elm started working included Refinery29, Blue Apron, Airbnb, Whole Foods, and Casper.
“Among the things that make for a strong partnership include aligned values, inherently exciting to both sides, uniquely tailored to the needs of all partners and the customer at the end,” Tay said.
When Mullen was at Maker Maker, one of the problems they often faced was a “misalignment” between smaller entrepreneurs and large retailers. In a lot of cases, a large retailer would find a creative sample they wanted, and drop a large purchase order on them. Without greater support, however, the designers tended to feel at loss for how to fulfill such demands.
“It ultimately left emerging creative fearful to work with large retailers,” Mullen said. “West Elm has helped change that dynamic, especially as the idea of local and social becomes so important for national retailers.”
Finding The Right Fit
To develop partnerships that fit, there had to be equal benefit and shared resources. And to help share the heavy lifting associated with the marketing of events and then processing orders, West Elm increasingly turned to startups like Casper that had the wherewithal to move quickly.
“How do you attract a brand to work with us? You have to make it new, exclusive, experiential,” Tay said.
Back in 2015, West Elm’s brand president asked Tay and Mullen to figure out how to with mattress maker Casper. The potential for Casper was intuitive to West Elm: as a startup, it had a unique business model. It had a witty ad campaign in the upscale areas West Elm served.
And it was a considered a major retail disruptor in the sleep space. But they had a problem too, Tay noted: you couldn’t try a mattress out unless you were in LA or New York, where you had access to one of their showrooms.
“After a few weeks of talks, we activated 80 showrooms for Casper,” Tay said. “We were able to offer our customers an exclusive experience. And Casper was able to drive sales at location instead of online only.”
General managers at other stores saw the opportunity. A manager at a store in Virginia told Tay and Mullen how customers were coming to the outlet just to see the Casper mattress. The idea took flight with other brands that lacked a brick-and-mortar presence.
Local’s Wider Impact
In early 2016, Airbnb came to West Elm with a very specific goal. It saw a lot of people wanting to book Airbnb listings. But they didn’t see enough inventory available, as homeowners who joined the Airbnb platform needed a bit of a nudge to get started on renting out their spaces.
Airbnb wanted West Elm to help provide design tips for these “inactive hosts” so that they would publish their first listing.
“We had to tailor our approach to email marketing when it came to working with Airbnb at an in-store event,” Tay said. “It was important to Airbnb to market directly to those inactive hosts. And we’ve never done that before. For West Elm, we need to be recognized as a brand partner, not just as a host venue.”
“When we open a new store, one of the first things that press wants to cover is the local aspect,” Mullen added. “What are we doing in their community to highlight special products and what are we doing to support them. This year alone, Local has had over 700 placements, which has resulted in over 2 billion impressions.”
Underlying all the partnerships, both with outside entities and its local stores, Tay noted that there’s a high level of responsibility and autonomy for ensuring that respective communities are aware of what’s going on, whether its an in-venue event or special collaboration.
“All of our stores have their own social channels, so they’re able to promote what event they’re hosting or who they’re working with on Instagram,” Tay said on the issue of location management. “We also have a feature on our website that lets stores can run their own event listings and RSVP. That’s one way they can communicate what’s happening at their individual store.”