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Adventures in Retailing XII:
Crate & Barrel


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
October 12, 2009

One of the small joys of living in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the reactions of newcomers from the hinterlands to the place. Back in 1976, I distinctly recall one of them fresh off the airplane asking me, "Doesn't any place around here that charge less than five bucks for a soap dish?" (To put things in perspective, according to the inflation calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $5 in 1976 is equivalent to $18.97 today.) While it certainly was possible to buy a sad, ordinary soap dish in the heart of Harvard Square back then for a mere 49 cents, it you wanted a real Cantabridgian soap dish, you would be lucky to get it for $5 at Design Research, known as DR to the locals.

The Design Research building in Brattle Square was itself an award-winning architectural orgasm that had their retail store on the bottom and their corporate headquarters on the top. The store served as a design and fashion museum where everything was for sale. DR was also the house of worship for the Marimekko cult, to which I briefly belonged. I still have one of their towels, a bit faded and worse for wear, and I silently pray to it in times of need. (Contemporary Marimekko is pathetic compared with the vintage stuff, which is still available in quantity on eBay.)

DR's retail business went belly up somewhere around 1978, by fortunately not until after they delivered my trestle desk, on which I wrote my doctoral dissertation by the light of the selfsame Luxo LS1A white clamp-mounted lamp that peeks over my shoulder as I write this. (The massive white desktop from the trestle desk  lives on in my basement; however, the two trestles that supported it were impractical and so I replaced them with four legs at some later date.) DR was replaced by Crate & Barrel, which got its start in Chicago. Although Crate & Barrel has since left the wondrous DR building, it remains in business elsewhere, probably because more people can afford to purchase its wares than those found in DR.

The first thing I ever bought at Crate & Barrel was a "working glass," a thick glass jelly jar "from France" that cost under a dollar each. (Given that I got it circa 1979, it was important to say "from France" in that nasal Prymaat Conehead voice.) I am currently the proud owner of 15 working glasses. Four are vintage 500 ml. glasses, most likely including my original glass, and the other 11 are 750 ml. models that date from January 1994. The originals say "500" on the bottom in large numbers; the newer batch lacks any numerical designation. (The circumstances surrounding their purchase in Boston were memorable to say the least, culminating in the collapse of Kidder, Peabody a few months later.)

I was reintroduced to Crate & Barrel after a long hiatus this past summer. After a rough 25 years in my family room, my old Crate & Barrel sofa was a shred of its former self, and so it was time for a new one. Albany, New York has many nice things, but furniture stores suitable for those with a mathematics background are not among them.

While in an earlier adventure, I found myself at Ikea to get Dave, who sits obediently beside me, directly under the aforementioned  classic Luxo lamp, I was not going to buy a sofa at Ikea. Indeed, I suffer from Ikea remorse, which I suspect is a common malady. Visits to the local Stickley Audi and Raymour and Flannagan stores were so depressing that I cannot bear to recount them here. Then, completely by accident, I found myself in a Crate & Barrel store somewhere off Route 128 during a brief foray to Boston. While the furniture on their showroom floor was largely repugnant, they did do special orders. (Apparently, to provide a sofa in cotton rather than microfiber C&B required that I wait until the end of the cotton growing season.) Seemingly eons later (and with ambiguous advance notice), the sofa arrived and happiness rules once more. (Actually, the "sofa" is a sectional, making it more like two and a half sofas, which is a popular sitcom in some parallel universe.)

Other than being a half-hearted DR knockoff, I find it hard to understand what C&B's deal is. I find Pottery Barn even more unfathomable. I am averse to both pottery and barns, so I have spent something like a total of 28 seconds in their stores, which look to me  like natural history museums of questionable taste. (It appears that some furniture stores base themselves on Lisa Kudrow sitcoms. Pottery Barn supposedly has something to do with "Friends" and Stickley Audi is closely associated with "Mad about You." Oddly, Showtime's "Californication" is based on furniture that I discarded years ago. Die, Breuer chair, die.)

I get Ikea, it has a theme. I get Wal-Mart, it's cheap. I get Target, it's not so cheap, but more pleasant than Wal-Mart. Crate & Barrel is not cheap and while I suspect they think they have a theme, whatever that theme is, it eludes me. I have to wonder if their sales staff and I are even of the same species. They don't ignore me and they are nice enough to me, but there is really no connection there.

The closest that I can come to figuring out Crate & Barrel's strategy is that they stock the items with the highest markups. That would explain their sad selection of small appliances, which is generally overpriced junk. They certainly aren't going either for the high-end like Williams-Sonoma, whose appliances are all overpriced, but not all junk. And they sure aren't Wal-Mart even if Wal-Mart now carries working glasses.

As a professional economist, the big question that I have is how they manage to stay in business. Because Crate & Barrel is so eclectic, shopping there takes lots of neurons to find the good stuff or the cheap stuff. Admittedly, Ikea is a cluttered maze, but I find it easy to locate "my Ikea" and screen out the rest of it. To get in the door at DR an item had to satisfy some fundamental aesthetic criterion, it was like getting into the Museum of Modern Art. If C&B has any aesthetic criteria at all, they escape me.

Next time, before my annual two-month winter break from commentaries, I will examine two competing audio cults.

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to