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How Williams Sonoma built the culture that got it through the pandemic

October 12, 2021, 10:16 PM UTC

At the height of store closures in spring 2020 when the pandemic shut down much of U.S. retail and countless national chains furloughed most of their store staff, Williams Sonoma bucked the trend and continued to pay them throughout, earning the home goods retailer widespread admiration in the industry.

For Laura Alber, it was a matter of protecting a culture that has made Williams Sonoma, which also owns West Elm and Pottery Barn, one of the most successful retailers in the country. Last year, comparable sales companywide rose 17%, and it gets a far higher percentage of sales online than almost all large brick-and-mortar chains.

“We’re all in this together,” she recalled, telling her troops on anxiety-filled company calls last year, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference. Alber did concede that at the height of the crisis, she had run the numbers on whether paying idling store employees or not would move the needle when it came to the risk of major liquidity problems. It didn’t.

And doing well by the staff paid off quickly and handsomely. The crisis made store workers more inventive and resourceful, Alber said. That meant, for instance, store workers using improvised tech tools to remotely advise customers on which desk to buy and what else could go with it in a new home office. Williams Sonoma, which already got the bulk of sales online, was among the first national chains to use store inventory to fill online orders. “They were so proud that they started innovating,” said Alber.

Alber, who’s been CEO for 12 years, making her the longest serving woman CEO in the Fortune 500, said anyone who thinks retail workers want to sit around and get paid for doing nothing doesn’t understand them. “There’s always complaining about bad workers,” she said. “Well, they don’t want to go on unemployment. These are amazing store managers; they don’t want to go try to beg for a job somewhere,” she said.

She herself made her way up the Williams Sonoma ranks by innovating, creating the Pottery Barn Kids business years ago when she was pregnant with her first child, a key stint that ultimately landed her the corner-office job. That freedom, and her bosses’ willingness to let her experiment, are what she is trying to cultivate at the company.

What Alber wants, she said, is “this culture of kind of wacky ideas and a long leash.” But what counts is to make workers feel engaged and that they matter: “The engagement I think is what brings out the best ideas.” And that’s how she gets the most out of her talented employees. “I think there are magical people,” she said. “I don’t think there’s magic. I think there are people who are magical.”

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