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Williams-Sonoma High-End DIY Line Takes Namesake In New Direction

By Joan E. Solsman Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Williams-Sonoma Inc. (WSM), best known for its high-end kitchen items, is rolling out a new line with upscale chicken coops and bee-keeping supplies, taking its lagging namesake brand in a new direction to attract well-heeled shoppers who like to get their hands dirty. The company is launching Agrarian, a line of products that includes live plants, bee-keeping supplies and do-it-yourself cheese-making kits, at select namesake stores Thursday. The line will also include "resources and inspiration" for customers who want to expand their involvement with food beyond cooking with top-notch pots and pans. Similar to the company's habit for its more traditional kitchen products, Williams-Sonoma is hand-picking items with cachet. The first collection includes cedar raised beds and planters from Farmer D, a biodynamic farming products company based in Georgia; preserving jars from Europe; and garden tools "designed specifically for women's hands" by London designer and cooking author Sophie Conran. But it marks a departure for the company, offering products that raise the prospect of purchasers digging in the dirt or mucking out chicken droppings. Among the product categories in the line are chicken coops, and the company will also deliver live fruit trees, organic herbs and heirloom vegetables to customers' homes for planting. Williams-Sonoma's current outdoor offerings largely revolve around grilling and entertaining outside. Allison O'Connor, Williams-Sonoma's vice president of merchandising, said Agrarian was designed to help embrace a lifestyle in which families collectively make decisions about what foods they eat and where the food comes from. Analysts said the line was likely one of several moves Williams-Sonoma is taking to strengthen confidence in its lagging namesake brand and enhance its image among its upscale customers. In its latest quarterly results, the company's namesake comparable-brand sales fell for the first time since 2009. By comparison, comparable-brand revenue at West Elm--the company's growth driver of late--jumped 35% on top of a 29% increase a year earlier. Namesake sales have been lagging behind the other brands since the downturn, although the namesake business was more resilient in the recession. Jefferies & Co. analyst John Marrin said the new line is likely one of many changes the company is making to instill confidence in the Williams-Sonoma brand, which he called its Achilles' heel right now. Canaccord Genuity Securities analyst Laura Champine said she doubted the company would dedicate much square footage to having items like chicken coops in its stores but would rather use the line to create an online presence in a new lifestyle category. She said that as department stores like Macy's Inc. (M) grow more aggressive on kitchen pricing, Williams-Sonoma needs to distinguish itself and enhance its image or risk becoming commoditized. In addition, Williams-Sonoma has an average customer with a six-figure income and a slew of baby boomers among its shoppers, Champine noted. "I think you'd be surprised how many of those with second homes would be open to bee-keeping," she said. Shares were down 6 cents at $37.41 in recent trading. -By Joan E. Solsman, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2291; joan.solsman@dowjones.com

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