Paulette Cole, Cofounder, CEO and Creative Director of ABC Home Furnishings of New York, reminds us of Gandhi’s wisdom. But she doesn’t stop there. She translates philosophy into positive action. And so can you!
It is possible to engage our customers in the gathering maelstrom of environmental awareness, to catch the best wave and to ride with it. Here are some of ABC’s winning strategies, insightful, attention getting, workable and, listen up friends, even profitable.
Springtime signaled the blossoming of a month-long mega-promotion that has evolved over the many years of Cole’s fascination with the culture and traditions of India. ABC literally pulled out all the stops. Windows at Manhattan’s Broadway and 19th Street location glowed with vibrant colour that continued into the interior ambience of a mythic upscale bazaar.
Carefully crafted invitations lured customers to participate in the installation’s attendant activities, “the month long journey”. Their exemplary, sometimes breath-taking website detailed and developed the message. Up-market trade and consumer publications, well provided with highly professional press releases, responded with enthusiasm.
“Attendance was excellent,” said Amy Chender, ABC Home’s Director of Social Responsibility. “It was a more than three-dimensional experience.”
What did the “experience” involve? Here’s an excerpt from one of Jane Berk’s press releases. Jane is Director of Public Relations, ABC Home. “Gateway to India” aspired to “seek to shift the paradigm of the West’s perception of India, moving beyond outsourcing and mass produced goods and waking our understanding of the profound influence that India has had on our culture... this unprecedented installation of design, art, home furnishings, chefs, artisans and visionaries is a reflection of ABC Home’s deepest values; promoting home as sacred space and sustainability --- in this case, preserving the spiritual, philosophical and artistic DNA of an indigenous culture.
‘Gateway to India’ recognizes the extraordinary quality, intention and soul inherent in the rituals and products inspired by India’s traditions and honors India as timeless, yet timely, in New York City and beyond.
“Throughout the month, ABC hosted a speaker series spanning the themes of Ayurveda, healing, meditation, yoga, design, global climate change, feminism, mythology, the arts and film.
Customers were invited to participate in these events as well as explore our new collections, many of which were made exclusively for ABC Home. They include some of the best and most unusual products this country has to offer, hand picked and often sourced from the farthest reaches of India.”
A promise, “The shift in the paradigm of India will transform you”, could well be true. Here’s a partial line-up.
•Furniture to see and appreciate included stylings in Indo Colonial, Spiritual, Mughal and Farm themes.
• An emphasis on beauty made “manifest”, with daily demonstrations by celebrated Indian artisans, keeping alive 500-year-old crafts.
•Healing was key, Ayurvedic mind body balancing by healers from The Chopra Centre and Spa.
•And the flavours of India, a special gourmet menu designed by renowned Chef Hemant Oberoi and chefs flown in from India, presented at ABC’s restaurants. Cooking classes, too!
Speakers at ABC’s “platform for the arts” Marigold Theatre were both numerous and illustrious. Week One, Opening Day, Tara Guber author of “Contact: The Yoga of Relationships”, spoke and signed books. That evening, the highly respected Deepak Chopra appeared, his topic “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Love”.
As the weeks progressed, authorities as diverse as Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid, addressed “Saving India’s Endangered Wildlife”; Frank Lipman MD and Mary Dunn, senior Lyengar Teacher, on “Yoga as Medicine”; Rita Sarin, The Hunger Project, “Women Leaders: the Revolution in India’s Villages”; Robert Chender, “Introduction to Meditation: Shambhala Meditation”; a birthday tribute concert with Godfrey Townsend Band, “The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison”; and Mira Kamdar, Planet India: “How the Fastest Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World”.
And there was a stellar opportunity to serve through feel-good purchases. Five percent of the proceeds from “Gateway to India” sales of furniture and statues was donated to the William J. Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative (CHAI)”.
Are you dazzled?! Obviously, a multi-purpose promotion. An impossible-to-ignore happening, an expression of altruism, a confirmation to the community of ABC’s mission statement.
Plus an extraordinary exposure of diverse eco-friendly, supportive and beautiful product lines. All there for customers to buy and carry home. Which they did.
”Gateway to India”, we predict, will be used as a shining model in graduate school marketing master classes for eons to come.
Time to reveal ABC’s Mission Statement.
“ABC Home’s mission to their customers, past, present and future... ABC Home’s mission is to serve by manifesting a retail paradigm shift in which we compose a revolutionary platform for offering cause-related product through beauty, experience and magic, in order to guide you to creatively express your individuality, values and actualize your home as sacred space.”
So what’s next? “ABC Home celebrates the earth, our collective home, with shades of green. Consume consciously; choose green, a shade at a time,” they suggest. This promotion, “Shades of Green”, again used ABC’s huge, highly visible windows to set the stage. Green in all its many variations enhanced furnishings in fantastical settings and again invaded the seven stories of ABC Home. It was a recognition of Earth Day, a promise to the goddesses and gods of spring everywhere.
Amy told us they advertised extensively in publications such as Vanity Fair and Newsweek. Their website again played a tremendous role. And Al Gore’s eye-opening documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”, is running in continuous loop in the midst of a sustainable furniture display. Also, there was a giveaway in honour of Earth Day, ABC’s “Planetorganic” cleaning product with any purchase of furniture.
Other adventures? Back in December 2004, Ms. Cole founded the ABC Home & Planet Foundation, “to inspire people to embrace a deeper spirit of giving... helping people change lives by connecting them with visionary groups that are changing the world. We’d like our customers not only to see the MISSIONmarket (one of their departments) as a place to buy new and unique gifts for a loved one, but also as an opportunity to be enriched by the experience of giving in a way that moves our world forward”.
The goal is described as providing “great opportunities for social service to the Manhattan-based store’s 22,000 culturally sophisticated weekly customers. We hope to engage with this great community in supporting a diverse group of innovative local and international organizations in furthering their good works”.
The announcement provoked front-page exposure in the New York Times, featuring the MISSIONmarket programme.
ABC has formed associations with 15 organizations (at present count) including Doctors Without Borders, the Rainforest Action Network and the Sustainable Furniture Council.
Then there’s ABC’s move “into the area of responsibly and ethically made jewelry with the Grounded Jewel Collection”. Paulette Cole was quoted as saying, “It’s a natural progression to develop collections that are in line with our values. With the environmental movement steadily gaining momentum, consumers are open to incorporating ‘green’ into all aspects of their life and this is an obvious niche to fill. As a mission-based company, we feel that compassionate and sustainably created jewelry resonates with a greater magnitude of beauty and can be worn with a deeper sense of purpose”.
ABC has partnered with Pride Diamonds in this venture, described as “one of the most progressive companies cultivating responsibly mined diamonds in Sierra Leone”. The relationship “developed specifically because of its singularly high standards in this area”. Pride was recently acquired by Target Resources. The company focuses on ethical working conditions, gender equality, high daily wages, endorsement of mining unions, environmental responsibility (filling holes and planting crops) and community outreach, with profits reinvested to “cultivate community projects, create jobs and sustain higher profitability”.
The ABC team had seen the illegalities and violence in the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “Blood Diamond”. Commented Cole, “Customers are much more curious (now) about the origin of a product and how it is made. They want to own things that support a community and the sustainability of our planet.
There is awareness around recycled materials... having your values reflected in what you wear really resonates throughout the day”. This goes beyond developing a relationship with your customers, it’s entering into their lives in such a way they feel no intrusion. In fact, your contact with them becomes an enhancement.
The Grounded Jewel Collection was released in time for Earth Day. It’s available only at the Manhattan store. The first pieces in the collection were designed for ABC Home by Sarah Perlis and incorporate natural elements featuring hand-hammered 18k to 22k “green” recycled gold and alluvial mined diamonds, panned not drilled. “A timely debut for a new sustainable venture.”
Point of purchase labeling is vital to get the point across. An interesting article in The New York Times’ tells us, “According to a study of shoppers’ behavior at ABC from June to November 2005, customers willingly paid up to 20 percent more for products bearing labels that cited a positive social impact, in particular the use of fair labour practices in their manufacture”.
Based on work achieved by Michael J. Hiscox, Harvard, and a Harvard senior, Nicholas F. B. Smyth, conclusions were reached after a comparison of purchases of similar products, the purpose, to see if the labels made any difference. “In a store like ABC with affluent customers and a reputation for commitment to social causes,” they wrote, “the data showed that firms that switch to labeled goods could charge between 10-20 percent extra and expect sales to rise, with stronger effects likely for luxury goods than for normal goods.” Get labeling!
Amy Chender has been with ABC for three and one-half years now and she is a believer. “People are attracted to something (a product) because it is beautiful, then from the tag they can learn about the story behind it.”
Amy, Jane Berk and the team all work on their eye-opening website. Do take the time to sit at your computer soon and spend a visually rewarding afternoon, browsing through wonderful, relevant knowledge adorned with some pretty mind-blowing images and concepts at www.abchome.com.
There’s a provocative line-up of sensitively expressed functional themes. It begins with a page labeled “recycled”, backed up with its definition, “to extract, recondition and adapt to a new use or function”. Shown is a simple, beautiful table and the clever icons devised by ABC that express the company’s culture. It’s the best short definition we’ve seen of the components of overall environmentally conscious products.
On the second screen, headed “pure”, representing ABC’s Pure Seating line, the sub-head reads, “grown, raised or dyed without the use of synthetic chemicals, heavy metals or CMOs”. Butterflies and a caterpillar surround an elegant cutaway of a classic chair, its components defined. The captioning describes it as, “frame good wood alder from responsibly managed forests, protecting old growth and endangered forest species”, “inner core 100 percent foam rubber with feather fill, non-toxic adhesive, organic burlap webbing and fabric, natural brown wool batting”, “inner layer organic cotton and hemp canvas cover; outer layer organic cotton, hemp, silk or linen” and “legs reclaimed wood”. This leaves the browser in no doubt as to Pure Seating’s ethical construction. It is one of the first U.S. upholstered collections to receive the Forest Stewardship Council’s green certification.
Other segments include “reclaimed, to turn into or return to a suitable condition for use” and “diversity, infinite possibilities, coexistence, interconnectedness”. Then “indigenous, conserving the design DNA of our global diversity” and “sustainable, supporting the spirit, vitality and energy”. And in the final panel, “evolution”, a collection of petrified ancient woods, the ABC Home Mission statement and another quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
A New York City landmark, ABC was founded by Paulette Cole’s great grandfather in 1897 as ABC Carpet & Home. She transformed the business into a lifestyle destination back in the 1990s with her then husband, Evan Cole. As she evolved personally, Ms. Cole restructured the firm, steering ABC in a new direction in 2004. She talked with environmentalists, anti-hunger campaigners and studied poverty in the developing world and created a world of green through her innate artistry, a ton of business know-how and a highly evolved sense of mission.
Not only did she want to offer furniture that was environmentally conscious, she hoped to achieve 100 percent responsible design in every piece housed throughout ABC’s seven floors and 350,000 square feet of showroom space. She believed she could “create the demand”. Cole is ready to admit that she might never reach the 100 percent figure, but said 20 percent of stock now fulfills her goal, three percentage points more than last year. The Grounded grouping boasts chairs and benches crafted in river root wood from responsibly managed forests. There are glass cases replete with organic creams and lotions. Tufted back sofas are cushioned with nontoxic latex foam and covered with all organic upholstery. And you can buy someone (perhaps yourself!) a gift certificate for 100 trees to aid in reforesting regions in Kenya. Or another gift certificate for $1,000 to help support Masai girls who refuse genital mutilation. There are dining and side tables by WindFall that mix wood from trees felled by natural events like windstorms and flooding with bases made of recycled steel. And her bedding department carries 100 percent Green Sleep mattresses.
If you don’t know where to begin, she advises, “Conventionally made bedding is treated with synthetic chemicals so, if you (and your customers) can, trade up to a bed that is organic”. And do check out ABC’s organic sheets and towels.
Packing materials have been replaced with biodegradable alternatives. All inks used in packaging and stationery are soy based. Copy paper is recycled, organic milk is to be found in the office refrigerator. “Our organic seating uses, of course, organic woods (GoodWood), glues, stains and latex, and there is also the complete cleaning products line.
“Our buying team is on the road much of the time,” said Amy. “We seek out our suppliers, start with a concept and an inspiration. You can develop your own suppliers, and guide vendors and manufacturers through the process of obtaining green materials such as wood approved by Rainforest Alliance and measuring up to socially responsible business codes. And we motivate designers to take things to the next level.”
Cole says, “It’s tedious, it’s expensive, but it’s smart business, too.” Proof of the pudding is $80,000,000 in sales in 2005, according to Hoover’s business reports.
"A one-stop shopping centre for the sustainable lifestyle", ABC's demographics are described as an "Affluent and Loyal Customer Base". Average household income is $150,000-plus, approximately 25 percent of customers own second homes, they are exceptionally loyal with 50 percent of sales from repeat business. Over 60 percent of customers are aged 30 to 55, approximately 70 percent female, the people who generally make the shopping decisions for a household. They are a well-educated group, urban, internationally aware and culturally influential.
Jane’s interaction with media is superb as two recent major articles in Town & Country and House & Garden Magazines indicate. Both feature Paulette Cole, and both quote the witty and clever CEO extensively. “People are beginning to know they want to make a difference.” She suggests that we check healthlighting.com for advice about fluorescent bulbs. “Going green is not only a personal health choice. It’s time to take responsibility for the planet into our own hands,” she says.
Cole recommends “Fatal Harvest”, a book about the agricultural industrial complex. Cotton farming is responsible for a lot of agricultural toxins it tells us.
And to retailers, “With us here to model for other businesses and to educate consumers at an influential level, the journey will be that much faster. We can encourage others to walk with us as long as it proves healthy and lucrative and fruitful.”
This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We urge you to visit www.abchome.com. very soon.
A kinder, gentler, sustainable world. It’s all about caring. So narrow your green gap if you haven’t already begun the process. Neutrality in planetary issues could be costly, even fatal.
This series on sustainable home furnishings retailing will continue in the July/August issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine with profiles of two more home furnishings retailers, information on green bedding, organic foams much more!