Why West Elm Is Selling Experiences, Not Just Goods

The Brooklyn-based home-furnishings retailer launches a new program to give customers a taste of hands-on craftsmanship

Making indigo-dyed tote bags at the studio of Fleabags co-founder Shira Entis in Sunset Park (Photos courtesy of West Elm)

One of the maxims of business today is that every product needs a story. Where was it made? By whom? With what tools and techniques? Brooklyn-based home-furnishings retailer West Elm got on board that idea with gusto by stocking its stores in 85 cities with locally sourced goods, which in Brooklyn includes products from local makers like Dusen Dusen and Quiet Town.

Now the company is taking the concept a step further–by making customers part of the story. Last week the company introduced West Elm LOCAL Experiences, a series of limited-edition workshops with artisans and experts. In Brooklyn, the series launches with a class in natural indigo-dyeing with Shira Entis, the co-founder of  Fleabags, a canvas tote-bag company. Students will learn the history of indigo and make their own hand-dyed bags in Entis’s studio in Sunset Park. (The three-hour class is $130, materials included.) 

Entis is a believer in customer engagement, since her own business grew out of her experience as a flea-market enthusiast. “When you’re purchasing a good in a store, you’re purchasing it in this kind of impersonal way,” Entis told The Bridge. “When you buy something third-hand or online, you might be able to read the bio, but it’s so much more meaningful to have an in-person interaction.”

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Fleabags co-founder Entis has had a lifelong fascination with textile arts

Entis, a designer, and co-founder Alexandra Bell, a lawyer, launched their company in 2009. In their trips to flea markets, the co-founders had realized that they were in need of sturdier bags to tote their purchases. They started with the “Original Flea,” a bag designed to emulate a vintage tool bag. Nine years later, Fleabags now offers an array of tote bags and an entire collection of canvas and leather accessories.

The new experiences program grows out of West Elm’s five-year-old local-sourcing program, which sometimes literally involved the company’s president scouting for products at Brooklyn Flea. “We were part of their initial launch,” says Entis. “So we made some custom canvas tote bags for them. I had met Mo [Mullen], the head of the program, through one of my friends. We said that we would love to be a part of it and that’s how the relationship started.”

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Participants in the class will make their own dye and learn to make patterns by tying off the fabric

As Mullen, the company’s v.p. of business development, stated in launching the new series: “We are adding a new depth to the [local] program by offering authentic, curated experiences with our artisan partners that match their talents with our customers’ affinities. These interactive opportunities offer a personal, human connection to a destination city or hometown delivered through the creative lens of a local artist.” West Elm, which opened its first store in Dumbo in 2003, has lately been the fastest-growing branch of its parent company, Williams-Sonoma.

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The artisans chosen for the program are likely to benefit from the spotlight. “I think one way in which it could impact us is purely exposure,” said Entis. “Obviously West Elm is such a large player in a variety of spaces: furniture and decor and small goods. We’ve been around for a while, but our reach is pretty small. I think that the exposure could be big for us. The other way that I like to think about it is that it allows me to connect with the people in the community in a way that’s meaningful. I get to share a little bit about what I do as an artist and a designer and a female entrepreneur. I think that it’s a really cool opportunity.”  

The workshops will provide materials for their specialized crafts

West Elm is launching the experiences program in five markets. Participants will learn about art welding in Austin, sketching in Charleston, furniture designing in Detroit, and textile creation in Savannah. The first round of experiences will take place during April and May.  

Entis, who will be teaching a total of eight workshops, exudes a fascination with her craft. “I’ve always been interested in dyeing and textile arts. I used to spin yarn and knit since I was a little thing,” she says.  “I got introduced to indigo dyeing about six years ago and took workshops in Brooklyn. I was the student and now I’m the teacher.”

In 2016, the two founders of Fleabags expanded their offerings by launched a new brand, Immodest Cotton, a line of cotton accessories and home products made in India.

Arden Phillips is a New York-based writer and a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Television, Radio, and Film.