CB2 Grows Up

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\"CB2\"It’s taken a little longer than probably most people expected, but it appears that CB2 is finally entering puberty.The little kid sister to Crate & Barrel is about to mark its 18th year in business; by this point it should have been a strapping teenager, muscular in its merchandising build and if not quite fully developed, at least pretty far along the way. But somewhere on the road to adulthood, CB2 got off track and has wandered aimlessly in its retail Wonder Years, never really maturing the way it should have.

It was a fact made extra painful by the development of the kid down the block, West Elm. Begun a year later – 2001, versus the 2000 CB2 start-up, West Elm has become the darling of the Williams Sonoma family of brands, and at least from this vantage point, it is the single best home furnishings retailer in the business today. Yes, West Elm had a few wayward years when it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up: a more manageable IKEA or something closer to its big brother, Pottery Barn. But the period was relatively brief, and for much of the last decade. it has evolved and matured into its own entity, offering sophisticated, sometimes whimsical and nearly always on-message products and services that resonate with its core audience, those Magnificent Millennials.

Not so much over at CB2. Blame it on the lack of focus at the core C&B brand, which went through a series of leaders following the retirement of founding father Gordon Segal and the premature exit and eventual death of his chosen successor Barbara Turf. Blame it too on its ownership, the German-based Otto Group that has never seemed to quite get what American lifestyle retailing is all about.

All of that looks like it’s changing. This holiday season, CB2 dropped its new catalog, a 92-pager called a Look Book — and it is certainly a looker indeed. Combined with a much more adult-looking website, the new CB2 offering represents a significant step-up from previous juvenile offerings. From the actual products featured – particularly the furniture – to their presentation on the printed page, to the assortment of gifts and seasonal items, this CB2 is clearly not a kid anymore.The opening spread of the new book sets the tone for what’s to follow. Under a headline of “Joyfully Irreverent, Our favorite holiday décor kicks tradition to the curb,” (perhaps a metaphor for CB2 itself?), the two pages combine a very tailored sofa with prices, depending on fabric, ranging up to $2000 with whimsical décor items: a brass pig snow globe, a wire gold-leafed holiday wreath and a silk decorative pillow.

Themed presentations continue for the next dozen or so pages and then the book moves into more conventional classification and room-specific sections, all displaying that product and presentation sophistication that bears a whole lot more resemblance to West Elm than the CB2 of yore.

Along the way, there’s an occasional curve ball as in a capsule collection with famed West L.A. retailer Fred Segal under the Venice Studio Collection name. Not exactly greasy kids stuff. The catalog concludes with a 19-page Boutique Gifts section, segmented by both price – Under $25 – and theme: tech, culinary, work, pets, bar, etc. Clearly the CB2 folks have been paying to the competition, all the way up to RH, which loads in a pretty heavy item-driven gift assortment for the holidays.

CB2 still has a long way to go if it wants retail parity with West Elm. With just 12 U.S. stores – plus two in Canada – it’s significantly smaller in its physical footprint than West Elm, which has 72 stores. But the retailer is playing a clever trick by also telling shoppers they can pick up their purchases at any of its 22 warehouses around the country, substantially expanding consumer options. These warehouses no doubt also service Crate’s main stores so it’s a neat way to interface with customers who do their shopping online but want to pick up their purchases in person.

It’s taken a long time for CB2 to leave its formative years and become a grown-up. In the meantime West Elm has staked out a real presence with its core demographic, Urban Outfitters’ Anthropolgie brand has dramatically expanded its home assortment and even IKEA has stepped up its game both in-store and online. CB2 has some serious catching up to do if it wants to be one of the big kids on the block.

But it’s nice to see it finally putting on its big boy retail pants.

Warren Shoulberg is a journalist who specializes in the home furnishings industry. He remembers going to the first CB2 store in Chicago in the early 2000s…and being underwhelmed.



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