I want you to do me a favor… I want you to think about Crate & Barrel…
What comes to mind?
Beautiful. Pristine. Clean white. Well-stocked, well-organized shelves. I used to walk into the Crate & Barrel on Boylston Street when I was in college and I needed a break from all the chaos. It is an anxious, visually-driven, perfectionist’s DREAM SPACE. Like The Container Store, I felt like I could breathe in a Crate & Barrel because it was just…. perfect.
And, now, think about where you find Crate & Barrel retail stores… especially back in the early 2000s, back before shopping malls started to empty out and shut down, Crate & Barrels were always in the BEST spots. Apparently mall owners and landlords would PAY to build out their spaces in order to accommodate Crate & Barrel because the brand was such a valuable draw for mall business… (Gordon Segal, HIBT 20 Feb 2017) That’s not just being in the right location, it’s CREATING the right location… And I get why. They were, and are, beautiful. Aspirational. Perfect….
But here’s where things get interesting… because what I know of Crate & Barrel, is all about who they are now and where I can find them today. But every business, every brand, starts small.
Take a trip back to 1963, with me, when Gordon and Carole Segal, newlyweds with a longing for European style tableware… started something small. Something a little crazy. They built out their first ever retail space in an old dumbwaiter factory in Chicago. They had 10k in life-savings and wedding gifts, which they needed all of to buy inventory from Europe, and a 7k loan from Gordon’s father, which he recognizes was probably everything his father owned in the whole world…
photo from crateandbarrel.com/about-crate-and-barrel
They didn’t have any money to fix up the old factory, so they got creative and ripped apart the shipping crates their product was being delivered in and used the boards to cover the damaged old factory walls. They turned barrels upside down and used them to display merchandise. They were literally building their dream out of crates and barrels, so when a friend suggested they use that as their name, they said why not!?
Now, back in 1963, you can imagine that it was possible to find a retail space in a major US city for $350/month… Even taking into account that today that would be more like $3,440/month it still feels like a steal. I paid more than that for a 2 bedroom apartment in college… When I think about all of the MAJOR brands that got their start decades ago, I think “man, it must have been so much easier back then.” And in some ways I really think it was. The marketplace was less crowded. Merchandise and retail space were WAY cheaper. Living expenses just to keep yourself fed and housed on top of running your business were WAY MORE REASONABLE…
But there’s always hope. Literally, in business and brand building, there is ALWAYS hope, because we entrepreneurs are hopeful creatures.
The other day I was having a conversation with someone who was caught up in bemoaning the hardship of modern businesses. Doomed to fail unless you find the right location in the right town with the exact right people and visibility… Obviously I couldn’t let that slide. Because location is, and has always been, of CRUCIAL importance to a new business… but “location” isn’t just physical anymore.
Location is digital. It’s how you show up online, on your website, on social media, in marketing materials. It’s how visible you are and the appearance you put out into the world. That’s why branding is SO IMPORTANT.
How are you visible? Where are you visible? What kinds of audiences will your visual brand attract and speak to? Because people don’t go to malls the way they used to. People don’t even shop in person the way they used to… and even if they did, the barrier for entry into the mall space or a decently trafficked street is pretty insurmountable to a fresh new brand, just getting on their feet.
So don’t do that. Don’t be that… be YOU. Be light. Be mobile. Build a brand that takes advantage of all the platforms and digital avenues available. Live into the hope and the crazy entrepreneurial spirit that sparked and inspired you in the first place. Let THAT be how you build your brand. Let THAT keep you moving forward. Don’t let not having the money for a retail space get in the way of your dream. Rip open those crates and cover the walls with them. Find your own way in all the technological possibilities in front of you. And do it with the caring guidance of people who’ve seen where you’re headed and who will share in your hope and show you the way.
As of 2017, Crate & Barrel was doing 1.2 BILLION in sales a year… They opened their first shop in 1963, expanded to 17 stores in 1985 and then 60 stores in 1995… Over the years they grew from 1 employee to 7,000.
What’s your story going to be? Where are you starting and where are you headed?
I know I, and my fellow collective members, can’t WAIT to hear all about it, and to help you get there!
Meg, Visual Brand Designer
the inKind Collective