Williams-Sonoma story

Now That’s Authenticity!

In this context, authenticity means: Does the product deliver what it says it will?  It doesn’t matter whether the product is a cheap toy, a fashionable blouse, or anything else. If authenticity is not present, no amount of money poured into it or marketing glitter can create it. You cannot change an Edsel into a Mercedes.

The Williams-Sonoma Example: Here’s an example of product authenticity in a very different kind of retailing environment: cookware.  When Chuck Williams first founded Williams-Sonoma back in 1956 (initially, a single store and a small catalog), he was absolutely obsessive about authenticity (and quality). And that never changed. Even after he sold the store in the 1970s and the company grew into the multi-billion-dollar, multi-brand global  corporation that it is today, he continued to have a direct influence on catalog production—and still does today, at age 99 (as of this writing).

Understandably, cookware catalogs contain photos of food. Now, food is very difficult to photograph. It has to sit for a long time under hot lights while the photographer takes multiple shots. Consequently, it cannot retain its perfect, delectable image for long, and it changes (color, texture, shape, etc.). So photographers have developed some tricks to give the visual illusion that the food in the photo is fresh and perfect. To photograph a dessert with whipped cream, for example, they will use shaving cream instead: it holds up longer under the lights.

One year, for the November holiday-season catalog cover, they were shooting a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top. But Chuck would not allow them to use shaving cream. It had to be whipped cream. Real whipped cream, whipped just right. So naturally, multiple shoots had to be done over several hours. It was very frustrating for the people working on the shoot. But in the end, they got it just right!

Now, it’s a tradition at Williams-Sonoma that after working so hard shooting all this wonderful, delicious food, the team—photographers, merchants, everyone—will share, and actually eat, the food. This time, Chuck took a bite of the pumpkin pie with real whipped cream and said, “It doesn’t taste sweet enough. Reshoot it.”

Now that’s authenticity!

This is excerpted from my upcoming book, “The Five Laws of Retail”.

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