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Williams-Sonoma returning to namesake town

A revolution in American cooking that was launched in Sonoma in 1956 is getting a re-boot in the place where it all began.

And just as it was when Chuck Williams opened his first store on Broadway, uncertainty abounds over how the finicky American consumer will greet the change.

Sonoma's Planning Commission has approved a use permit allowing Williams-Sonoma to open a store, cafe and cooking school at the Broadway location where Williams, who is now 98, got his start.

The company is betting that the revamped model, which is being copied nationwide, will help reverse years of declining sales and fend off competitors, some of them online, that offer similar products for less.

Williams-Sonoma remains a $3 billion juggernaut with 268 outlets nationwide. But that market share dominance has been steadily diluted, in part by people coming into one of the stores to browse the merchandise and then making the purchase online, in a practice referred to as "showrooming."

"It's an iconic brand, and it's a brand that a lot of people know. But in a way, it's not keeping up with the times," said Michael Stone, who runs Beanstalk, a New York-based brand licensing agency.

He said Williams-Sonoma has to do a better job in particular of appealing to younger shoppers, who are the most sought-after target in the hyper-competitive cooking and kitchenware segment.

"William-Sonoma is a great place for people to go and look around, which I think a lot of people do without buying anything," Stone said. "They have to look at ways to attract a younger consumer into the store and get them to buy, or go on the Web."

The outlet approved at 599 Broadway will include a 628-square-foot retail shop modeled on the original store, with a select inventory that includes unique and original items. A cooking school will accommodate up to 14 students. There also will be a cafe with seating for 32, including six outside.

Rebecca Weill, a spokeswoman for Williams-Sonoma, would not go into specifics about the company's business strategy, except to say the company is "creating an exciting in-store and shopping experience for our customers."


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