Why The Huge Catalog?
And How Restoration Hardware is Becoming The Ikea of Luxury Furnishings

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Restoration Hardware's 2014 catalog/source guide is dropping across the country as we speak. At the size and weight of a small child, you might hear a collective thud and then cries of surprise as many are woken from their slumbers. This is exactly what Gary Friedman, Resto's CEO, would like to happen. On Friday I got to have an in depth phone conversation with Gary as he raced to a ribbon cutting in Connecticut. He gave me the scoop on why the "telephone book" of a mailing, where this is all going, and why he thinks Resto is revolutionary and transforming the home furnishing business. It's fun.

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Two years into being a publicly traded company, Resto has not slowed down one bit and their assault on the furniture retail business is picking up even more steam this month as they drop the new "source books", open a new flagship store in Greenwich Connecticut and look to reopen their New York location next month with double the square footage.

Source Books, Not Catalogs

First of all, these are NOT catalogs. I was corrected by Gary on this and he made it clear that Resto is no longer in the catalog business. Aside from the fact that dropping their books once a year, instead of twelve times a year is MUCH better for the environment (the books are also fully recyclable and shipped UPS in a partnership, where certified carbon offsets have been purchased to balance all impact), it was interesting to hear him articulate why they are different. Most catalog drops are timed with seasons, sales and new releases that compel customers to impulse buy as these trends move through the year. Resto is not driven by color or season and they no longer want to tease customers like this. They'd rather give people their whole catalog/source book of products at once and have it be evergreen and for reference year round. They are appealing to the serious homeowner or renter and they want to be seen as a deep, luxurious and total solution for home furnishings. Hence the books are mainly divided into categories like "lighting" and "bath," so that they are easier to use for reference.


The Invisible Store

Even more interestingly, Gary was adamant that while everyone may think that the web is the future of all business, it is not for Resto. Their business is NOT about the internet as most of their sales come through their retail stores, and they like it that way.

Where People Come From:

54% Retail Stores

46% Direct (20% source guides, 80% internet)

Retail on the web, Gary said, is invisible and democratic, which is to say online stores can only be seen through the keyhole of a computer at which point they all can look very similar despite their differences. For example Resto's front page will be the same size as Holly's Furniture Shop, and you can't easily tell the differences in size and quality until you dig in. Because of this, Resto wants to sell via the web, but telegraph its offering through the size and style of its books and stores - all of which are BIG. In other words, in order for Resto to distinguish itself, it must leverage its retail presence as much as possible.


Most Retail Stores Are Sad, Resto's Are Not

Gary gets very animated when talking about his retail store strategy, and it IS exciting to hear him talk, mainly because his strategy seems both sound and counterintuitive at the same time. While more and more commerce moves online, Gary says the reason for this is not because online is better, it's because American retailers lack the imagination and the intelligence to bring customers into their stores.

For example, why would you want to buy furnishings for your home in a big box store that has no natural light? It's an inhuman and deadly environment that doesn't inspire or signal a life anyone wants to lead. And there are plastic plants in these stores! If a plant can't live in the store, that's a bad signal, and it comes from the fact that there is rarely any natural light in retail stores.

Resto is closing 30% of their locations and renovating the rest to be big, beautiful galleries, all of which will be in renovated historical buildings. Like Ralph Lauren, who has put tons of money into his beautiful flagship stores, but unlike Ralph Lauren in that his stores apparently don't drive the business, Gary said their stores will be bigger, filled with natural light and - eventually - you will not only shop for furnishings there, you will also be able to have a latte or a bellini at the cafes and restaurants that they plan to roll out inside.

Oh, and there will be childcare too!

Remember when Barnes & Noble opened coffee shops inside their stores? Remember when you first went to IKEA and smelled the cinnamon rolls as you looked for a sofa? Ever remember visiting ABC Home in NYC and hearing the din of the restaurant in the back of the first floor?

Ever been to a big home retailer in Europe???

They are all destinations where you can park yourself for hours and soak up the LIFESTYLE and not just shop for a piece of furniture.

This is where he wants to go, and it makes me feel doubly sad for JC Penney, who almost got there, but didn't have the support they needed and got stuck in the middle.


"Fast Is As Slow As We Go"

That is what I was told by Gary's head of PR, and it does seem true to the extent that they have been moving quickly for awhile now.

With a strategy born out of depths of the Recession, it is fascinating to have ringside seats to the world of retail and watch the sources that are available go through such tremendous upheaval. As with any transition, there are always winners and losers, and it does look like Resto is here to stay, so, no matter what you think about their immense catalog, before you judge them too harshly, consider all your other options and then see what you think is best for your home.

Ps. This is not an advertisement. I love hearing the stories of why and how home retailers do what they do, and I'll talk to any retailer. :)

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(Image credits: Maxwell Ryan)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.