Wayfair’s first store is finally here. What’s it like? (2024)

Wayfair has built it. Will they come?

Next week the home furnishings e-commerce giant will open its first large-scale store, a 150,000-square-foot retail palace in the Chicagoland market. Its success (or failure) will be a critical signal for the company, which has struggled to obtain profitability with a largely digital strategy. This project has been in the making for some time, having been first announced three years ago with an originally planned launch date of spring 2023.

Wayfair has smaller stores—eight, under a variety of its brands—but this marks its first real foray into the world of physical retailing with a store that aims to re-create its online presence for in-person shoppers.

In that, it joins a wide range of “internet first” players, including those in home (Casper, Burrow, and ) and out (Warby Parker and Everlane) that have opened stores to augment digital platforms, rounding out their omnichannel efforts.

In a press preview walk-through earlier this week at the Wilmette, Illinois, store—mostly finished, but with a small army of workers busy putting the finishing touches on the sprawling location—it was clear Wayfair understood the importance of this venture. Taking what had been a long-shuttered former Carson Pirie Scott branch in a strip center in this upscale suburb, the company performed what appears to be a top-to-bottom gut job.

From its dramatic purple-branded exterior, complete with an oversize abstract mural and big logos visible to drivers on the nearby interstate, to an interior with a central atrium and giant video screens, Wayfair is attempting to create a true manifestation of what its shoppers find online, offering the breadth if not quite the depth of its whole-home merchandising concept.

As for the size, Barclay Resler, head of visual merchandising for Wayfair, who led the store tour, put it well: “We needed this much space to deliver on our brand promise.”

At least in this preview stage, Wayfair seems to have succeeded. Heavy on the furniture categories that are at the heart of its $11 billion annual business, the store runs the product gamut, from home decor, rugs and lighting to textiles, tabletop, housewares, kids and outdoor. And, in a real eye-opener for a category some might not associate with Wayfair, much of the top floor of the two-story space features an extensive DIY department with kitchen cabinetry, hardware, plumbing fixtures and major appliances.

In creating this merchandise mix, Wayfair achieves the delicate balance of cash-and-carry products with its core business of home-delivered furniture and larger goods. The store, which opens May 23, offers shoppers the option of back-door pickup for midsize pieces like occasional tables and framed art as well. Deliveries are serviced by a Wayfair fulfillment center within a 90-minute drive of the store, and the company is touting getting orders to customers within one to three days. In fact, the Wilmette location was at least partially influenced by its proximity to this distribution point, executives said during the tour.

Wayfair’s first store is finally here. What’s it like? (1)

A two story atrium welcomes customers in the new Wayfair store in Wilmette, IllinoisCourtesy of Wayfair

Upon arrival, perhaps following a coffee and snack at The Porch cafe (wine and beer are also on the menu), shoppers will see some decor merchandise upfront after walking through a two-story, colorful lobby. They may detect the faint scent of newly mowed grass and other fragrances—a signature aroma piped throughout the store.

Furniture, arranged by style rather than category, rings most of this first floor. As Wayfair does online, most furniture offerings are private brands, often white-labeled, including its signature Kelly Clarkson Home collection as well as pieces from three of its name brands, AllModern, Birch, and Joss & Main. A fourth Wayfair nameplate, Perigold, is not represented in the store, as the company is choosing to keep its upscale brand separate and apart from this venture.

The furniture assortment, while quite large, works to stay away from being overwhelming. “We obviously couldn’t show the millions of products we sell,” Liza Lefkowski, vice president of merchandising for proprietary brands and stores, said on the walk-through. Most items on the selling floor sport electronic price tags that can be updated daily from corporate headquarters to make sure pricing is consistent online and in-store.

A corner Design Studio allows shoppers to consult in-house staff, and there is a custom upholstery station to further individualize selections. The first-floor center-store area includes smaller decor goods such as framed art and tabletop, with inventory adjacent to displays.

Up the escalator to the second floor, visitors are greeted by the home improvement department, ranging from kitchen cabinets and sinks to major appliances and plumbing fixtures. A bath area includes showerheads hooked up to water lines so consumers can check out the functionality—though actual bathing is discouraged.

The second floor also features departments for wallcoverings, bath textiles, bedding textiles with numerous display beds, window fashions, pet offerings (of which a chicken coop is reportedly the top seller), a Dream Center for mattresses and utility textiles (which has its own soothing scent, by the way), and babies and kids.

Continuing upstairs, there is an outdoor furniture, grill and accessories area, lighting and— completing the race track—housewares, featuring small appliances, cookware and kitchenware.

A home-centric store of this size is still an anomaly in the industry, with only giants like Ikea and Nebraska Furniture Mart achieving this scale of total-home offerings. And so far, Wayfair Wilmette represents a one of one: Company officials said there are no announced plans yet for expansion—they want to get this location up and running before committing to additional ones.

But Niraj Shah, CEO and co-founder, that stores are a critical part of Wayfair’s strategy. “Depending on what purchases someone’s making, they may prefer the in-store experience and getting to work with an associate.” And while Wayfair offers design and financing assistance online, “sometimes, in-store can be either more pleasurable or more effective.”

Shah said he sees a “whole portfolio of large-format stores” nationwide, again declining any timetable. Whatever that schedule is, it starts next week in Wilmette.

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Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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Wayfair’s first store is finally here. What’s it like? (2024)
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