Home Is Where the Niche Is

Selling across categories can be easy — as long as you understand the customer.


Discerning consumer palettes may scoff at having to meander through a cavernous department store, weaving in and out of racks of Garanimals, women’s hosiery and then up an escalator to look for bedding. But, increasingly, they’re having no problem turning to their favorite specialty retailer or apparel brand to outfit not only themselves but their residences.

As brands that managed to snag the attention of Millennials flex their niche power in a struggling retail landscape, they’re now aging up and evolving to fit the needs of their audience. That’s translated, in many cases, to expansion into the home category.

“The power right now is in the niche market and the people who have great ownership of their market are doing well,” said Greg Armas, founder of the contemporary boutique Assembly, with locations in New York and Los Angeles. “Our business is up at brick-and-mortar 20 percent and online 45 percent from last year. It’s really hard, but at the same time, the proof is in the pudding and we’ve been able to push the numbers and, for us, it’s just fine-tuning the stores and online so that it’s accurate. It’s not for everybody.”

Assembly is in the process of developing a very small collection of home items consisting of objects, furniture and art pieces. These include a solid marble container Armas described as having a “sacred or ceremonial quality” and priced at around $350. He’s also working on an $800 folding-style chair of which he has prototypes that lend themselves more to modern art than backyard barbecue, and there’s a collection of concrete bowls with a decorative marble swirling that will range from $120 on up to $600. Who would pay for such pieces?

The same person who comes into Assembly and admires a top with no sleeves and 10 buttons, Armas said.

“Two things happened that were kind of the same thing: I grew up,” he said. “I opened the shop over 10 years ago and my client base grew up as well. They’re now at a different place in their lives because they bought a home or are cooking for parties. Maybe they’re 40 and they’re not going to bring a Starbucks [gift card] to a party. It’s more maturity than an inclination [to launch home].”

Trade shows have taken note on the wholesale side with Liberty Fairs bringing its Living Room home goods section to the Las Vegas show floor for the first time in August where brands such as Empire Apothecary and Kidd Epps showed. The Essentials section on the Agenda Long Beach show floor materialized in January for retailers to stock their shelves with grooming products, candles and textiles among other items.

A pop-up at the downtown Los Angeles mixed-use project Row DTLA opens its doors in November, giving Modern Citizen the chance and space — at 1,000 square feet — to further test home, including slightly larger, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces.

While the category’s sales aren’t expected to eclipse the company’s apparel revenue, it presents growth opportunities at certain points in the year, especially around holiday when the company plans to bolster its online assortment with more than 50 additional stockkeeping units, according to Lee. The trick is to not lose sight of the brand.

“The traditional department store, their biggest benefit to the customer is they have endless options that cut across categories,” Lee said. “For customers, that experience can feel overwhelming. Where retailers like us, the newer online brands, we’re really focused on a target customer. What we’re offering her is not an endless breadth of sku’s. We’re not offering vases from $5 to $500. We’re taking a focused approach.”

Hedging one’s bets by covering the spectrum in pricing or brand options isn’t as necessary if one already knows the customer.

“Buyers are really curating products; it’s more specialty,” said Adele Tetangco, cofounder and vice president of merchandise and brand at Garmentory, a platform for emerging designers and boutiques. “If you think of the way [boutiques] curate their clothes, they each have their own unique point of view and that makes you want to spend a little more. The pieces are more special even if the price point is higher.”

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