Decorist was founded in 2013 by Gretchen Hansen, who continues as its CEO, after she made a mistake buying chairs for her office. She snapped some pictures and sent them to an interior design friend who worked remotely and returned a design that turned her office into a workable and beautiful space.
That was Hansen’s a-ha moment. She figured that many people had similar interior design challenges but didn’t know where to turn. They needed a designer on call. Decorist was born, offering a quick and affordable solution to interior design challenges through a virtual design service.
During BBBY’s fourth quarter 2016 earnings call, then CEO Steven Temares explained where the acquisition of Decorist fit into the company’s plans: “As the interior design arm for Bed Bath & Beyond, we plan to leverage Decorist online platform to initiate and/or enhance our design consultation offerings for some of our concepts.” Temares exited the company this past May.
But since then, Decorist has operated largely under the radar. Only recently has the company’s BuyBuyBaby arm made Decorist’s design services part of the in-store shopping experience, though Decorist design services are offered on Bed Bath & Beyond’s website.
Since August Decorist services have rolled out into five of the 126 BuyBuyBaby stores, including Pleasant Hill, California, Brooklyn and Manhattan (Chelsea), Downer's Grove and Naperville, Illinois.
In these five stores a selection of nursery vignettes are staged using designer selections drawn from BuyBuyBaby’s existing product line.
The in-store design experience is supported by a proprietary 3D-imaging tool, called Dream Builder, where the client inputs their exact room specifications, e.g. doors, windows and walls, so they can see on the screen how the furniture and décor will look in their own space.
With new CEO Mark Tritton coming to BBBY from Target after what fellow Forbes.com contributor Warren Shoulberg described as “the most tumultuous year in the 40-year-old retailer’s existence,” a question remains about where Decorist fits.
In September BBBY chairman Patrick Gaston and interim president Mary Winston issued a shareholder’s letter outlining the company’s turnaround plans, which includes editing the number of brands they operate by “reviewing and optimizing our asset base” with the help of Goldman Sachs.
“They have given no specifics,” Shoulberg shared with me. “Speculation is that they will eventually circle the wagons around Bed Bath & Beyond, BuyBuyBaby, with perhaps Christmas Tree Shops remaining as well. Everything else will go one way or another. I guess that would include Decorist, which is a brand they pretty much have never talked about since acquiring it to the point that I forgot they owned it.”
If Bed Bath & Beyond does decide to spin off Decorist, an even bigger question remains about where online design services like Decorist, as well as competitors Havenly, HomePolish, Modsy, and others, fit into the traditional interior design industry. It is an industry built on a personal one-on-one client relationships with well-heeled clients who can pay for such ultra-luxurious service.
“Ours is a new model,” Hansen told me during a telephone interview. “Most people have had to design their homes themselves and couldn’t afford to hire a full-service interior designer. We help customers bring a professional design aesthetic into their home. This is a new category in design and we are building it out. Of course, there are competitors, but we think competition is good for everybody.”
Stating that awareness of online design services like Decorist has grown from virtually zero a few years ago to around 20% to 25% today, Hansen sees her company’s expansion into physical retail with its BuyBuyBaby nursery design program as critical to extending her company’s reach to Millennial HENRYs (high-earners-not-rich-yet), who are starting families and have well-paying careers but with an expectation of far greater earnings to follow.
These next-generation consumers are the ones that the entire interior design industry needs to cultivate. By communicating with them in their native digital language and putting the service in front of them in BuyBuyBaby to design their newborn’s nursery, a milestone in young couples’ lives, Decorist is positioned to get a leg up over competing online design services.
But more importantly, it gets an opportunity to introduce these customers to what a professional designer can do, giving it an advantage over traditional designers as well. When these customers face a bigger design challenge later in life and with fatter wallets as their income grows, Decorist is there waiting for them.
“It’s a Pinterest/Instagram world. With so much design inspiration available, people get stressed out and overwhelmed about how to take those ideas and get it to that final magazine-worthy level, which they all want,” Hansen explains. “So we come in, take the ideas, pull it all together and deliver a design that looks good with the proper layout and most especially that works for their lifestyle. The average person doesn’t have the time or expertise to create a beautiful room.”
Decorist designers generally source products from a recommended list of 200 vendors, though they can venture beyond that list to other sources depending on the client’s needs.
Overall interior designers account for some $78 billion in product recommendations annually, according to the most recent American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) 2019 Outlook and State of Interior Design report. That’s just over 20% of the $341.2 billion spent by Americans on home furnishings last year.
Decorist projects skew toward the decorative side of the business. “We don’t get involved with moving walls or where construction is involved. That’s better left to the personal in-home services, but if someone is keeping their bathroom layout, we can absolutely help them with that,” Hansen says.
Decorist offers single room design packages on a sliding scale from $299 (Classic), $599 (Elite) to $1,299 for a Celebrity designer. Clients are matched to specific designers based upon their style preferences and their budgets. Like hair stylists, the 400 or so Decorist interior designers are classed at different levels based upon their skill levels and experience. New designers start at the Classic level and can work themselves up as their portfolios grow.
Designers at the Elite and Celebrity level typically operate full-service design studios and supplement their full-service businesses with Decorist’s virtual-design approach. “We are all collaborating. The Elite and Celebrity designers might have associates that they can leverage to provide additional services, all the while giving those designers experience in the virtual world,” Hansen says.
Hansen describes the Celebrity designers as high-profile names in design who’ve been featured in magazines like Architectural Digest and Elle Decor. Currently 40 A-list designers offer services at Decorist’s Celebrity level.
“The Celebrity designers help legitimize our brand name, and we give them a way to incrementally add to their existing businesses. Our Celebrity designers have been a big game changer for us, because we give clients access to design talent they could never access before at a reasonable price,” she says and adds, “Virtual design is not going away.”
Besides offering design-challenged customers a simple, easy, and affordable way to access professional interior design services, Decorist also makes the design process easier for designers too.
“We’re always looking at ways to help the customer, as well as the designer. We give them 3D tools and sourcing options to get the design to the customer faster, so they spend less time on it and ultimately make more money,” she continues.
As a pioneer in online interior design services, Hansen doesn’t see Decorist or other online services as disruptors to the industry but a welcome alternative that will help the entire interior design industry grow.
However, ASID and others see them as a big disruptive challenge. “We have been monitoring the impact of online design services and have identified them as a disruptor in the industry in past reports,” says ASID’s Susan Chung, Ph.D. and director of research and knowledge management.
Christopher P. Ramey, founder of The Home Trust International, which counts many full-service designers among its group, doesn’t see online services disrupting the high-end of the interior design industry.
But for those designers with less established names who haven’t discovered yet that they need to be as good at marketing as they are at design, disruption is coming. “The environment is ripe as entire television networks are dedicated to presenting design as a hobby anyone can do in thirty minutes. Sadly, many interior designers are contributing to the category carnage,” Ramey believes.
With some 14,000 design firms and 69,222 designers working today bringing in approximately $15 billion in professional billings, the interior design industry must rapidly adjust to the changing preferences and expectations of clients, most especially the next generation that has little to no experience working with a designer. But thanks to greater exposure through HGTV, social media and other design resources, they have a better developed eye for decorating style and design than generations before them.
Online disruption is coming on fast to the interior design industry. Traditional interior designers who’ve come up through the ranks, working their professional practice like designers before them, can no longer operate by the old rule book.
Either they have to elevate themselves to the celebrity ranks where they can command the attention and high prices luxury consumers are willing to spend, or they need to adapt to the new expectations of the next generation customers who comfortably operate in the digital sphere. This next generation also greatly values sophisticated design but are not willing to pay the high ticket of traditional services or to wait the long lead times to fulfill their decorating dreams.
And even the luxury consumers who’ve used full-service designers in the past are curious about the virtual design model that Decorist offers. “A lot of our Celebrity clients have used a full-service interior designer for their important rooms, like their living room, kitchens or dining room. But now they might want their office or kid’s bedrooms done and they hire us,” Hansen says.
These experienced clients are drawn to Decorist for the same reasons that inexperienced ones are. It offers a way to access professional design talent without breaking the bank. “It is not uncommon to see a $15,000 room that includes a $150 side table or a chair from Target. Everybody wants value, even if they can afford a very expensive room,” Hansen concludes.
I am a market researcher, speaker and author focused on the affluent consumers’ behavior and mindset, including the HENRYs (high-earners-not-rich-yet) mass affluent. I
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