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How covid changed the way we look at luxury furniture

Williams-Sonoma’s global CEO talks about the changing tastes of Indians when it comes to home furnishings

Laura J. Alber, the global chief executive of Williams-Sonoma, Inc.
Laura J. Alber, the global chief executive of Williams-Sonoma, Inc.

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"The world has become more particular about the furniture they want to own now,” Laura J. Alber, the global chief executive of American furniture and home furnishing retailer Williams-Sonoma, Inc., says when I ask her about the impact of covid on the way people design and look at their homes. “The other change is the increase in interest in how the home looks. We are seeing a lot of this in India, especially.”

Noticing this interest, Williams-Sonoma entered India last year by opening two stores of West Elm, one of its brands known for modern and more functional designs, in partnership with homegrown Reliance Brands Ltd, in Mumbai and Gurgaon. The brand will soon open more stores for West Elm, and for their other brand, Pottery Barn (more rustic, boho chic; its website is already up and running), in the country.

Mint spoke with Alber, who was recently in Gurugram, about what makes India such an important market for the home furnishings business and the changing tastes of the Indian consumer. Edited excerpts:

Also read: How European furniture changed the way India dressed

What makes India so important for you?

I have been travelling to India since I was 26, to do product design. It’s my favourite place, and I’m not just saying that. We’ve done so much business here through the years, we have such an incredible vendor community.

India is certainly a large market, with many home furnishing options for people to choose from, but I think there’s still tremendous opportunity. There are a lot of people here, in United States, and in many other countries who are in this business, but there’s no one doing what we’re doing. No one is doing the full design; we design everything ourselves. We have different brands for different aesthetics. Like West Elm is more urban and modern, and Pottery Barn, more rustic. This is what makes it easy for people to buy anything and everything under one roof.

Who’s your target audience?

It’s meant for people who are well travelled, well informed and fall in a certain salary bracket because we’re doing high quality furniture. It’s not disposable furniture, you know, that’s very important to us. What we sell is going to last a lifetime, something you could pass down generations. And that’s why you pay more. Quality matters a lot in furniture. Think about it: you can buy an expensive dress but how many times will you wear it? You need your bed every day and it needs to be comfy… it’s important. So you need to invest in good quality furniture.

Is there any one design aesthetic that people follow globally?

Yes. After the pandemic, people really started caring about design and how their home looked. And why not? Home became our sanctuary. We wanted to improve it, make it more functional… People who didn’t know how to cook had to learn how to cook. And even as we have started going out, home continues to be an important place. And we still care about how it looks and we want to make it comfortable. So, of course, there’s a shared interest globally.

Like fashion, people have strong opinions about how their homes look. They know exactly what they like and what they want. For instance, right now, a lot of people across the globe are interested in bright, optimistic colours. Light-coloured woods are trending. People are more interested in different types of wood now than they were ever before.

Having said that, I would like to add that people want to have variety and quality. Quality is that one consistent thing I get to hear a lot from different corners of the world. Consumer has become more mindful; they care about quality. They want to know why they should pay a high amount for a quality product. If it isn’t obvious, they’re not willing to pay for it.

You mentioned earlier that you have been coming to India since you were 26. How have you seen the Indian consumer evolve in these past two decades?

There’s always been a mix of both traditional and modern designs. There’s an authenticity of the heritage here; Indians love to celebrate their culture and heritage. And then there’s a desire for modern design. We get a lot of design inspiration from India. The change I notice is in the furniture. Earlier it was much more formal. Now I see more casual elements.

Could you talk about your India-inspired design?

Well, our chief design officer is Monica Bhargava, who’s been with us for over 20 years. She’s an India woman from Delhi, so India is very much part of our design story.

Going forward, are you planning to open more retail stores?

In America, our e-commerce business is close to 70% of our total business online. Because once people get familiar with the quality and the trust, it’s actually super convenient just to go online, look at the stuff and have it shipped to you. So, I won’t be surprised if the trend continues here in India as well. But we are definitely looking at opening two more West Elm stores in India next year. And soon Gurugram will have a Pottery Barn.

How has the home changed over the years?

I think that there’s a big home entertaining trend now. People really like to have dinner parties in their homes. It’s also become a fluid space; it’s our home and our workspace. We want it to be more functional. People who started cooking or looking after the house more during the pandemic now want different types of plates, knives, pans, carpets. They want to everything to look good and comfortable.

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