Update: Potterybarnkids.com Debuts With SoHo Touch

Home furnishings retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. faced a unique issue with the launch of potterybarnkids.com: How should it court the New York media for an online store in a city where the brand has no retail presence?

Try renting a 5,500-square-foot vacant loft in Manhattan's chic SoHo shopping district for a one-day show and tell. That is what Williams-Sonoma Inc. did Wednesday when it displayed potterybarnkids.com home furnishings for babies and children in the estimated $5 million space.

The entire exercise of renting the SoHo loft and transporting executives and products cost around $35,000, including the cost of the items. Company executives would not confirm that number.

“We wanted to give the experience of what you can expect online in a real-world environment,” said Shelley Nandkeolyar, vice president of e-commerce at Williams-Sonoma Inc., San Francisco.

The sunnier end of the living room was dressed up to look like the outdoors. There was green carpeting meant to reflect lawn. Mini Adirondack chairs, outdoor storage benches, balls and a rubber pool were on display.

Adjacent to that was an arrangement for a play area, including a closet, a table and four chairs, teddy bears, assorted toys and a rug. The three bedrooms had beds, bedding, cribs, lamps, linen and dressers to look like a nursery, a girl's bedroom and a boy's bedroom.

These products or ensembles were displayed to resemble how they are sold on potterybarnkids.com, which allows shopping by age, gender, room or gift interest.

“Almost no one has been exposed to the product because we don't have any stores in Manhattan,” said Beth Gray, director of Pottery Barn Kids E-Commerce, “and so this allowed us to combine the virtual experience to show how we're merchandising on the Web site and make it visually tangible.”

The retailer invited O, The Oprah Magazine; InStyle; Rosie; Parenting; Glamour; House and Garden; and the Oxygen Media television network. These media share the same target demographic as Pottery Barn Kids: women with children and expectant mothers.

“It's to present the launch of the Web site, but also present the product because a lot of [the media] use our products in their features,” said Tracy Brown, director of public relations and marketing communications at Williams-Sonoma Inc.

“[As] part of larger feature stories, that's an opportunity for the media to include about what to get on the Pottery Barn Kids Web site,” Brown said.

Besides public relations, Williams-Sonoma Inc. has commandeered marketing support for its children's online store from Pottery Barn catalogs and stores.

The potterybarnkids.com address is mentioned on receipts, shopping bags and point-of-sale materials in 11 Pottery Barn Kids stores. Pottery Barn Kids catalogs, 30 million of which drop annually, will plug the site on front and back covers and in a regular section on new products available online.

In addition, the retailer dropped 400,000 e-mails prior to the launch and another 600,000 the week of May 21 when the site had its soft launch. Names were pulled from Pottery Barn Kids catalog and store files, plus 25,000 e-mail addresses collected from registrants at potterybarnkids.com.

The online store also gets traffic and sweepstakes sign-ups through links on BabyCenter.com, a parenting site that Johnson & Johnson bought in March from eToys Inc. for $10 million.

But Williams-Sonoma Inc. values publicity from efforts such as the New York loft rental.

“This event is a key part of generating word-of-mouth awareness [and] brand awareness because the brand's so new. [Pottery Barn Kids has] only been around since 1999,” Nandkeolyar said.

Williams-Sonoma Inc. sells home furnishings nationwide through offline and online stores and catalogs under the Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Pottery Barn Bed + Bath, Hold Everything and Chambers brands.

For the official launch of potterybarnkids.com, an estimated 50 journalists showed up from 25 media outlets in New York.

Most articles on the online store will appear in “late fall, which is right around holiday-giving time, and we're going to have a lot of enhancements to the assortment, a lot of gifts and merchandise on the site,” Gray said.

The products were donated to charities right after the event.

“In the spirit of piloting and learning, I think this is a test experience for us,” Nandkeolyar said. “We want to see what the impact of this has been, and then if this works out to be the right model, this may well be the model we take into the next launch.”

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