From the source: Kerri Ackermann, West Elm
Kerri Ackermann is the vice president of West Elm – Global. She is responsible for product development, executing effective growth strategies and strengthening brand recognition.
Ackermann joined Williams Sonoma, Inc in 2013 as global brand director at West Elm, where she positioned the company for expansion into international markets, and was promoted to her current role in 2015. Prior to joining Williams Sonoma, Inc, Ackermann held a variety of positions at Urban Outfitters, including director of planning.
COMPANY PROFILE: West Elm
Headquartered in Brooklyn, NY since 2002, West Elm opened its first store in Dumbo, the neighborhood it still proudly calls home. West Elm designs to make an impact on everyday life, from creating unique, affordable designs and its commitment to fair trade-certified, local and handcrafted products, to community-driven collaborations and events. The brand operates 106 stores in the US, Australia, Canada and the UK has unaffiliated franchisees that operate stores in Mexico, the Middle East, Philippines and South Korea.
Inside Retail Weekly: How has the past year been for West Elm?
Kerri Ackermann: It’s been really positive, we’ve been continuing to gain some great momentum, we’ve had strong and consistent growth which is exciting and we have a healthy business internationally.
We actually just launched earlier this year with a franchise partner in Korea which is exciting. Our first store opened in June and then we just announced very recently that we’re going to be partnering with Arnotts in Ireland (the country’s oldest department store) from a wholesale perspective, which is exciting as well.
IRW: West Elm has worked quite closely with local artisans in the past. It’s a great way to get involved in a community.
KA: Working within our global communities is really so important and part of our DNA. Our commitment to social consciousness is really embedded in what we live by, which is to design to impact. We like to show our customers the power of their purchase and what purchasing West Elm means for our commitments to fair trade, sustainability and the local community via West Elm Local, and other local initiatives every month in our stores in Australia.
It’s up to each of our store teams to work with local makers in their area. We offer makers an opportunity to come to our store for a weekend and introduce themselves to our customer and introduce our customer to them.
We love to help small businesses grow and nurture that talent. Each of our stores and teams are really empowered to connect with their communities through different ways.
West Elm is a responsible retailer. We have commitments to sustainable sourcing and being mindful of our impact on every level – we respect both the environment and artisan. We also support fair trade and today, our program impacts more than 5,000 workers and our customers become part of that commitment with each purchase.
We’ve invested more than $225 million to handcrafted products to date – we like to preserves the handcrafts, support local economies, and bring one-of-a-kind pieces into your home. Over 20 per cent of our range is made by hand and 90 per cent of our rugs are handcrafted, while 59 per cent of our cotton bedding is organic.
IRW: How would you describe the West Elm customer?
KA: Our customers are diverse with eclectic taste but the one thing West Elm customers have in common is their home is a reflection of their personal style. They’re house-proud, attracted to a mix of styles and live in different spaces from very large family homes and small apartments to townhouses and lofts.
What I love about them is that they have a strong social consciousness. They appreciate well-made pieces and are interested in the backgrounds of our designers and their names. They’re curious about handcrafted products, mixing and matching pieces in their spaces and keeping things that are important to them. For example, we worked with our design crew in Australia to design a space around a piece their grandmother had given them.
Our customers are style-seekers and house-proud and in terms of expectations, it’s about seeking quality value. They want the ability to mix and match what they have in their homes already and learn about new collaborations and designers.
Within West Elm, we have a separate maker’s studio where we have a design team throwing pottery, sewing and working to create compelling collections you won’t see anywhere else.
IRW: Can you tell me about the strategy behind the visual merchandising of West Elm stores?
KA: Our goal is to provide customers with inspiration and really empower them to express their personal style at home. Our stores are a representation of our brand vision and being inviting. They’re a way for people to connect and experience the brand. All of our stores have different events, so it’s about inviting the community into our living room, being part of our home, and making our stores an extension of theirs.
Visual merchandising at West Elm plays a pivotal role for us sharing our vision with customers. It aims to create a lifestyle experience that you could imagine in your home. Its focus is to inspire, empower and educate people on how they can create a unique look that suits their own personal style.
We don’t take a cookie-cutter approach – each store is different and reflects the locality’s style. We create different looks to suit different styles and on top of that, our design crew can help customers pull a look together if they’re stuck or need some guidance – no matter the size of the project.
IRW: There are a lot of competitors in the homewares space now, especially with the increase in online retailers. What makes West Elm different to other brands out there?
KA: It depends obviously on how you view it and from our perspective, competition is healthy. We have a healthy online business and continue to evolve and develop our product offering to keep it fresh for customers, whether it’s retaining customers or attracting new ones.
It’s a busy category right now, but we’re committed to serving quality design with longevity and it’s about increasing our customers’ ethical choices. Over 90 per cent of our products in our stores and online is designed internally by our in-house designers here in Brooklyn and they’re responsibly sourced, so we’re focused on exclusive product that’s designed to impact.
IRW: I heard about the hotels that West Elm is planning to open next year. Can you tell me about what’s behind that initiative and is it something that might be rolled out into Australia?
KA: Great design has been central to West Elm’s access, so our entry into that industry was a natural next step as a purpose-driven brand looking at opportunities to create a really rich, relevant experience for our customers.
Through hotels, we want to create an unique opportunity for our brand to grow beyond just retail stores and we’ll measure their success based on our ability to create those exceptional experiences. We really believe there’s a meaningful gap in the hotel market, so our hotels will operate based on the customer experience, providing a rich opportunity to help shape the future of hospitality.
West Elm Hotels will offer a differentiated experience from the major hotel chains and the geographically-limited specialty players – a national hotel brand that is wholly focused on the unique character of each location and its surrounding community.
While our goal was to create the comfort of home in each room, we are creating spaces that cater to the travel experience. Our hotels will include products from existing West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Inc collections, along with some specifically designed for that property. Each location will also feature a mix of locally made items to reflect the character and talent of its community, from the exterior architecture to custom installations, such as locally crafted art and bespoke furnishings.
Detroit will be our first hotel to open in late 2018, followed by additional hotels in cities in America, like Indianapolis, Savannah, Charlotte and California. It’s a way for us to connect with our customer in different places, whether they’re at home or away. We’re really going into the heart of these great communities.
IRW: How do your different brands (Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Williams-Sonoma and West Elm) all work together without cannibalising each other in the market?
KA: Each brand has its own sense of self, aesthetic and heritage and we consider ourselves a family of brands that supports one another.
In Chadstone, our stores are connected and you can seamlessly pass through them. Our brands are naturally inclusive and again, we think of ourselves as a family and in Australia, specifically, because we have some of those seamless environments, our customers see us that way. We take learnings from each other all the time but again, it’s about seeking our individual identity through those learnings.