How Williams-Sonoma Became The World’s Largest Digital-First, Design-Led And Sustainable Home Retailer

July 12, 2021
Peter High
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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Yasir Anwar is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Digital Officer of Williams-Sonoma. He refers to the company as a house of brands, which include Williams-Sonoma, Williams-Sonoma Home, West Elm, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Teen, Pottery Barn Kids, Mark & Graham, and Rejuvenation. Technology and digital are the central nervous system of the company, Anwar notes. “We are the world’s largest digital-first, design-led and sustainable home retailer. For that, you have to bring the whole world together to serve the customer needs.”

Anwar sees the evolution of the head of technology role as key in this transformation. He notes that “traditional” CIOs have an internal operational focus. The merging of technology and digital in his title and responsibilities implies a focus on technology projects but also on outcomes. What value is being driven? “It always has to start with the customer experience,” Anwar says. “This is the merger of the technology strength, powered and coupled by customer experience, digital experiences, and the power of digital that has been unleashing in the world as we speak.”

The results speak for themselves. Williams-Sonoma has a 70% e-commerce revenue penetration, Anwar said, up from 58% prior to the pandemic. Achieving that from a technical perspective begins with a global multi-tenant platform and a modern e-commerce platform. “We are building on top of not just microservices, but micro front-end, which would allow us to have more nimble, small, modular services,” noted Anwar. This allows the company to go to market much more rapidly. The platform is used across all of the company’s brands, which gives the company an edge when it comes to innovation. The platform allows the company to test a new idea or feature on a single brand, gather data, and quickly roll it out to others if it is successful.

As with many other companies, the pandemic accelerated digital innovation. For example, Williams-Sonoma associates use a tool called Room Planner to help advise clients on what furniture fits best in which rooms. The pandemic pushed for a faster release of a customer-facing version of the tool, which enables a customer to use the measurements of a room in their house, and then fill the space with furniture from across Williams-Sonoma’s brands. This proved to be a game changer at a time when so many people focused on updating and upgrading their homes to make them more conducive to both work and personal life. The tool also provides a connection to a professional when a customer wishes to get advice or ask questions.

When asked for Williams-Sonoma’s points of differentiation, Anwar believes one of the biggest examples is the company’s in-house design. “Many other marketplaces…sell home furnishing items,” he said. “They [typically procure] those items. They’re sourcing those items from different vendors across the world, but they do not own the design of those products.” By contrast, each of the Williams-Sonoma brands have high-performing, passionate and inspirational designers. “We own and we design everything and then we work with our in-house manufacturing locations, which we have here in the U.S.,” said Anwar, “We make in America, and then we also go to our partners, wherever we need to get the quality and diversity of design manufacturing…. I don’t think there is a company that could claim that they have such a deep ownership of the design, freshness of the design, and then the quality of the design.”

Anwar and his team have focused on two key cultural pillars in their transformation. First was moving a culture of “managers managing managers” to “experts leading experts.” This entails upskilling the team dramatically to greater levels of depth of knowledge. The second was going from a focus on output to a focus on outcomes. The result has been a transformation from a traditional retailer to a true hybrid between traditional retail and retail tech. “Our business is completely running on the rails of technology,” Anwar said. “Our goal in the next few years is to [reach a point where] tech front-loads the business propulsion and growth.”

The “house of brands” approach works for Williams-Sonoma because each brand serves different phases of an individual or a family’s life. The stores, themselves, reflect those nuances. A Pottery Barn Kids will have a different look and feel from Williams-Sonoma. That said, there are many commonalities and best practices that the unified Stores team can apply across the brands. Technology reflects a similar strategy. “If you have brands which are running on different platforms, different versions, there is a ton of costs,” he said. “If you have tested something great in one brand, you cannot go live [with] another brand because there are so many nuances.” Anwar noted that at least 85% of the company’s technology stack is common for all the brands.

Each of these trends served Williams-Sonoma well, and the stock price of the company bears this out, as it has risen more than 450% since March 20, 2020, from roughly $36 per share to the current price north of $164 per share.

Anwar is proud of the degree to which the tech and digital team fostered nimbleness in the company. “The teams were ready, the infrastructure was ready, the websites were ready, the supply chain fulfillment operational teams were ready,” noted Anwar. “It is a unique situation for all [retailers]. As they say, everybody is going through the same storm, but on different types of ships.” Anwar and his team have helped Williams-Sonoma build a ship to withstand the storm, steering more readily toward opportunity and away from danger.

Peter High is President of  Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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