There is a myth in business that after a company rises to the top in the business press with cover stories in Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week that it’s headed for a fall. Called the “Fortune Cover Curse,” Gawker’s Owen Thomas reports there is statistical evidence behind the curse. “Headlines from featured stories in Business Week, Fortune, and Forbes were collected for a 20-year period. Statistical testing implied that positive stories generally indicate the end of superior performance and negative news generally indicates the end of poor performance.”
If that is the case, PIRCH, the high-end kitchen and bath retailer known for its in-store shopping experience, has been headed for a fall. It has collected numerous honors and awards since its founding in 2009 and its media coverage has been effusive. Perhaps the curse couldn’t get more damning than being named to the Forbes list of America’s most promising companies. Of course, I say this ironically due to the esteem that I hold for this publication.
My theory about the cover curse is that the company starts to actually believe its own press, gets caught up in the buzz and forgets about what got it praise in the first place. And I wonder if PIRCH hasn’t gotten caught in that trap.
As recently as May of this year PIRCH was still in growth mode, opening its tenth showroom in Austin, TX, which promptly closed last week. It also is shuttering its Dallas, Chicago, Paramus and Atlanta showrooms at the end of the month and reportedly is “evaluating options” for its New York SoHo store. Going forward, PIRCH is retrenching to its home base in California with only four showrooms. The company said, “PIRCH has made the strategic decision to re-focus its footprint and expansion.”
I’ve heard rumors for a while that things weren’t so joyful at PIRCH, referencing its branding platform around creating joyful experiences for its customers, with stories of its vendors not getting paid, empty showrooms and salespeople that were “lethargic.”
So I reached out to several people in the know, including Warren Shoulberg, recently retired editorial director for several Progressive Business Media home furnishings business publications, and the one who turned me onto PIRCH initially; Chris Ramey, president of the Home Trust International, a consortium of luxury home design brands and resources, some of which are sold in PIRCH; and a former management employee to discuss what went wrong for a company that seemingly held such promise for revolutionizing the way that home and outdoor appliances and plumbing fixtures were sold.
Here’s what we came up with:
The founders’ loss was PIRCH’s loss
Back in 2016 founders Jeffery Sears and Jim Stuart left the company under the direction of new president and CEO Andrea Dorigo, who came from Luxottica, the luxury eyewear company, and previously Brooks Brothers. But history has shown when visionary leaders leave the companies they founded, i.e. Apple’s Steve Jobs, or step aside as Starbuck’s Howard Schultz did, they take the vision that was the life force of the brand with them. As Ramey said, “Founders are the soul of a company. Their replacements rarely fill those shoes.”
While Sears wouldn’t comment for this article, just looking at Sear’s and Stuart’s resumes, both with extensive experience in the home space, as compared with Dorigo’s from fashion, it stands to reason that their exit from this home retail company may have been a key factor in the decline in its prospects we see today.
PIRCH didn’t effectively execute against the vision
On the other hand, a former PIRCH employee who worked with both Sears and Dorigo had nothing but praise for the financial and operations expertise that Dorigo brought to the company. “Sears is a visionary, but not an operations guy,” he told me. Dorigo knew the money that was coming in and going out, but his financial prowess may have been a little late to the party. “PIRCH expanded too fast. We were on hold with every vendor and couldn’t get products,” he said.
Shoulberg too sees the flaw, not in the vision of PIRCH, but in its execution. “I couldn’t see how they could ever make the numbers work with their high-cost, high-profile real estate given their product mix,” he said. “They counted on a certain number of huge, five-figure sales to pay the rent and I’m not sure that alone was enough. I never understood why they didn’t have more impulse-purchase products — textiles, books, tabletop — to bring in more foot traffic and provide a steadier stream of sales to balance out the projected big spikes.”
PIRCH forgot it had to sell what it showed
“Luxury products, regardless of category, still have to be sold,” Ramey said. “There is a wide divide between a showroom and a sell-room.” Ramey noted that many of the in-store staff manning the stores were actually employees of the companies they represented. These vendor employees were there to “engage customers,” but clearly weren’t empowered to cross-sell the other major pieces that go into creating a kitchen, bath or outdoor living space.
For the brands represented in PIRCH, the actual sales derived from the PIRCH floor was less important than the sales of the brand itself. “Suppliers were complicit because they didn’t care where the sale came from, as long as it was their brand,” Ramey said. “To wit: Sub-Zero isn’t going to sell appreciably more or less refrigerators because PIRCH survives or dies.”
In effect, PIRCH, as a showroom for high-end, luxury brands, was itself showroomed as potential customers were invited in to see and experience the products, only to go back home and buy the product from someone else. “The customers were working the store for products and ideas and then making their purchases someplace else,” Shoulberg said. Speaking of the product vendors, Ramey commented, “They treated the showroom as a library, rather than a sell-room.”
PIRCH doesn’t understand the luxury customers it has to serve
At the end of the day, this may be PIRCH’s biggest fail. While PIRCH created luxurious shopping experiences in its stores, Ramey explained, “Creating a memorable customer experience in a ‘bottom of mind’ category like plumbing fixtures, is a Herculean task. PIRCH’s definition of ‘customer experience’ is too heavily product driven.” Ramey suggested that PIRCH should have followed a luxury hospitality “customer experience” model focused on more personal service and 360⁰ whole kitchen, bath and outdoor living experiences, rather than how this shower head works or that stove cooks.
And while PIRCH aimed for the luxury customer with plenty of cash to spend, the fact is they don’t necessarily want to, or need to, pay full list price. “The one commonality amongst the affluent is they save money,” Ramey reminds us. “Luxury is a fantasy. Product and pricing is reality. The greatest experience doesn’t trump the need for a value proposition that resonates with the best prospects.”
PIRCH’s affluent customers, by and large, are not do-it-yourselfers. They don’t buy on impulse or based on the thrill they might have experienced in the PIRCH store hands-on trial approach. “PIRCH’s best prospects may eat three times a day, but they only buy a kitchen three times in their life. It becomes a thoughtful purchase, rather than an impulse one,” he said.
And since they are not DIY-ers, the PIRCH customers tend to work with designers, contractors and other advisors when making such purchases. “The acquisition of appliances, toilets and matching accessories is rarely fast; nor is it made alone or without influencers,” Ramey said. That means the customers’ loyalty is to their influencer, rather than the PIRCH showroom where they saw the product. And those influencers can pass along savings to the customer as part of a total kitchen, bath or outdoor package.
In conclusion, Shoulberg gives much credit to the vision that created a store like PIRCH, but the tough times it faces now has more to do with “stategy execution than the strategy itself. The PIRCH rollback is disappointing to anyone hoping they had the answer to physical retail.” The former PIRCH employee believes that L Catterton, the private equity firm that owns PIRCH, will be looking for a buyer next. “My gut feeling is the NYC store will close and the private equity firm will sell the company and take the loss,” he said.
And Ramey said, “Industry buzz doesn’t necessarily translate into retail sales, particularly with big-ticket thoughtful purchases.” PIRCH deserves lots of credit for innovating the customer experiences for the home buyers and providing much-needed guidance when contemplating the investment in a $25,000 stove. With that, he believes PIRCH is onto something important, but whether they can execute against it is in question. Now PIRCH must learn how to sell what it shows. Until it does, PIRCH will be but a footnote in the history of experiential retail.