Image: Woman shops at Williams-Sonoma
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images file
Williams-Sonoma thrived during the housing boom, and sales have swooned along with the real estate market.
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updated 8/15/2010 12:51:57 PM ET 2010-08-15T16:51:57

When Laura J. Alber was named chief executive officer of Williams-Sonoma in January, she got some advice from the company's 94-year-old founder, Charles E. "Chuck" Williams: "Don't change it. Make it better." If only it were that simple. The housing slump and sagging consumer confidence have hammered the home goods industry. Williams-Sonoma, which besides its namesake stores also owns Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, and West Elm, has seen sales fall for the past two years. While the San Francisco-based retailer expects revenues to rise to as much as $3.37 billion this year, 9 percent over 2009, that's well below the record $3.94 billion of 2007.

Alber, 41, a Williams-Sonoma veteran who ran Pottery Barn during the housing boom, says her strategy for tougher times involves snatching share by expanding West Elm and boosting online sales for the whole company. While a slump in home buying means less demand for couches, espresso machines, and bed linen, Alber is counting on Americans to renovate the homes they have. "When you start painting," she says, "it becomes a huge project because everything else then looks bad."

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During her tenure at Pottery Barn from 2002 to 2006, Alber oversaw an expansion from 172 stores to 289. Now she wants to do the same with West Elm, which sells moderately priced modern furniture in 37 stores, largely on the U.S. coasts. Alber has broadened West Elm's offerings to appeal to a wider demographic. She stocked $7.99 soap dishes for budget-minded consumers who might otherwise head to Ikea while adding goods from name designers such as a $64 holiday decoration by David Stark. "West Elm is a brand that has national potential," says Joseph Feldman, an analyst with Telsey Advisory Group. "It plays well with the post-college urban consumer." Alber's big challenge, he says: finding good store sites. Since West Elm appeals to urbanites, its stores require prime street addresses that are harder to come by than space in a mall.

Alber's targeting of owners upgrading their homes makes sense, says Feldman, who estimates that four-fifths of home furnishings sales stem from renovations. The longer a family stays put, the more it's likely to spend, and on bigger-ticket items, he says.

Williams-Sonoma says online sales of home furnishings will grow by $2.5 billion in the U.S. over the next five years, and Alber wants a big chunk of that growth. Her company dominates home furnishings online, with $943 million in Web sales last year, more than triple that of its nearest rival, Crate & Barrel, says Matt Nemer, a Wells Fargo analyst.

Williams-Sonoma's exclusive merchandise makes it "Amazon-proof," Nemer says, because shoppers can't easily compare prices on the Web. And the 52 million names the retailer has collected partly through its catalog operation give it marketing punch. For example, it used data collected on buyers of its cribs to later sell toddler and twin beds, then teen goods, and now items in Pottery Barn's dorm catalog.

Still, the retailer faces plenty of challenges. Williams-Sonoma Home, which sells luxury home goods, is struggling. Alber will close two West Elm stores in coming months; she's looking for better locations. And she faces stiff competition from Crate & Barrel's 10-year-old CB2 stores, which target the same urban stylistas who shop at West Elm. Five years ago the red-hot home market would have made such problems seem small. Says Cowen & Co. analyst Laura Champine: "You're probably not going to get another housing boom like that."

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