Charles E. Williams took his first trip to France in 1953 and fell in love with items such as copper cookware. He is quoted as saying, “I knew this was something that wasn’t found in America but thought people would want.”

 
 
 
 
Profile
  • Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.
  • Founding year: 1956
  • Number of locations as of January 2011: 592
  • Brands: Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, PBteen, West Elm, Williams-Sonoma Home
  • Q4 2010 net revenues: $1.195 billion versus $1.090 billion in Q4 09

Charles E. Williams took his first trip to France in 1953 and fell in love with items such as copper cookware. He is quoted as saying, “I knew this was something that wasn’t found in America but thought people would want.”

He credited the selection and merchandising of products in the store as primary contributors to Williams-Sonoma’s success: “Not many people in this country had seen some of the things we were selling, so I thought you should see each pan in the best possible way. I put them up on a shelf in size order, with all the handles facing the same way, ensuring that anyone walking in would see the display at its best angle. If somebody wanted to buy something, he had to ask me to get it for him, thus creating conversation. As in the upscale stores I had worked in, I tried to build the place so that it demanded that customers be served.”

Throughout the years, Williams-Sonoma has continued to expand its retail presence by acquiring other brands and companies such as Pottery Barn (1986), from which it developed Pottery Barn Kids (1999) and PBteen (2003). It also launched the West Elm brand in 2003.

Perhaps critical to the company’s success today is how it stays top of mind in the consumer world. In 2005, the company entered into agreement with CBS News weekday program “The Early Show” to broadcast “The 5-Minute Cooking School,” and its e-commerce platform contributed to the company’s record earnings during fiscal 2010. Laura Alber, president and CEO, said, “We are particularly pleased with the progress we made in merchandising, marketing, customer acquisition, and customer service, as it is these competitive advantages that allowed us to attract new customers to our brands and gain profitable market share all year, including Internet revenue growth of 27%.”