Denise Williamson: Building a Store with Stories

We had a chance to speak to Denise Williamson, Co-founder and CEO of 180 – The Store and Williamson PR, who launched what may have been the first retail establishment connected to a public relations firm in October 2017. Denise makes heavy use of her communications experience to engage customers with stories; it may be called 180, but her store seems like it’s moving in the same direction as her agency, by creating compelling reasons to go to the location and connect with the designers and products that are shown there. (Check out the podcast above, or read the edited transcript, which follows, below.)

David Zweifler, Gordon Magazine (DZ): So, Denise, where did the idea for integrating a store into your PR business come from?

Denise Williamson, 180 – The Store (DW): You know the industry’s evolved so much. PR and wholesale has changed throughout the years, and they just felt like I was kind of in this rat race where I was trying to figure out where PR and wholesale and everything was going. I wanted to kind of step out of that and think of other ways that we can help promote our clients and give designers and brands opportunities be able to have a platform where they can express their work for their angles being press or – for exposure for consumers to understand and to learn about, to test the market . We do work with a lot of brands from overseas where they may be quite established where they are based but they’re not here in America. And I think it’s a great way to be able to give them those opportunities and a platform to express their collection and the way they see fit. So that’s where the whole idea that inspired 180 – just trying to branch out and do things a little bit different and be able to offer our years or my years of experience to brands and being able to promote them.

DZ: So fashion, textiles, footwear, art, photography…

DW: Homewares, pottery, art – yeah, so it’s really endless where we can go and I think that’s also the beauty and the freedom of it.

DZ: No matter what you think of the future of retail, there are still things that you want to touch before you buy them and maybe try them on before you buy them. In that sense that makes it makes a lot of sense for your clients, it makes a lot of sense – your business model seems to have sustainability because there’s always going to need to be a showroom function. I’m just curious is the store really an extension of the agency and it’s a showroom for your clients. Or is it a standalone retail establishment that happens to feature your clients — how are you approaching it?

The Store and The Stories Are Intertwined

DW: Well they are two separate companies and we look at them as two separate companies but they are quite intertwined. I think the beauty is that we do have our own PR company in-house that’s located downstairs from the store. It has enabled us to promote and create installations. You know we done long-table dinners here, we’ve done book launches we’ve done worked with Naoto Fukuzawa and when he was doing his book launch hosted all of his collaboration for the past ten years under one roof , so, you know, the PR company obviously has a big function in and being able promote what we do

DZ: Should I talk to you as a retailer or should I talk to you as a comms person?

DW: You can talk to me as a distributor wholesaler, as a PR marketing person, and as a retailer. I think that’s really the whole beauty of it. That was the whole primary objective of opening up 180 is to be able to house that all under one roof and be effective in the way that we’re doing it. I’ve had my own company now for 21 years and have launched numerous brands for years. We work with retailers worldwide we work with editors and stylists and so forth worldwide, and so it just felt natural to move into the retail environment.

I’m so hesitant to call myself a retailer because I think we’re a lot more than that. It’s an event space also. We can break down this whole space and host a dinner party in three hours and you know that’s the flexibility and the fun of it. We allow the front half, which is about 300 square feet of the store, the primary front location, to be able to turn that over to designers and let them build it out the way they want as if it were their own store. So our PR clients, our current clients for Williamston, yes they are in 180 and they continue to be and they see the benefit of it because of the exposure. We have editors walking through the space all the time, buyers throughout the world walking through the space all the time, and they’re making money from it because it’s selling to consumers, and the outreach is so fast. So yes, they are continued clients within 180.

DZ: It sounds like you can do things with the store that a straight-up retailer can’t do because this is a complement to your communications business.

DW: Obviously, it’s a great add-on for what we’re doing for PR and for our clients and it gives us the flexibility of having a venue to be able to promote them, and you know, to have that freedom to be able to be creative in hosting events during launch parties, presentations, and everything else. It’s super effective you know but also I think one is for me one of the frustrations that I found, especially I have to say, within the US sellers you know I travel a lot is you know and it’s not at fault of theirs because of the overhead in the rent and everything else and everybody you know you need to pay the bottom line you need to cover your overhead which then puts them in a position of not having much differentiation.

I’ll never get stuck in saying: “I got to keep it this way.” We’re loyal to our brands and everything else but as I said I just want to think it’s my treat as a retailer because I want to have that flexibility to be able to change. We’re always confusing our customers — every two weeks we’re doing a new installation we’re bringing something new in… I think it’s good to constantly bring new things to the forefront for people you know to come in and find the place and walk out and go “that was a great experience,” “well I just learned something.”

The Products Need A Narrative Behind Them

We will never bring something into the store that doesn’t have a compelling story or narrative behind it. That’s what’s so interesting you know it’s also I think brick and mortars are a place where you can be able to expose and teach and show different things to individuals and promote them, for me that’s very very important.

DZ: We’ve kind of backed into the whole you know the whole enchilada for me talking to you because as a PR person you need to develop the stories that are going to attract attention and to get people to engage with you or with your client. And I think that’s probably the biggest problem that retailers face right now is driving that engagement. And to a certain extent you have to think like anything but a retailer but maybe a PR person, maybe a communications person, to create that confusion you were talking about before, to snap people’s heads, so they ask “Wait what’s going on in there? I’ve gotta go I have to go in and take a look.” It sounds like that’s your bread and butter.

DW: I think it’s our model throughout the company, being able to get that story across. I take it very seriously and the clients – they work so hard to create this product. It’s a beautiful product that we’re representing and to be able to get that across to whomever we’re speaking to us, whether it’s a wholesaler, or a retail customer, or a publication or an influencer or whoever it is — it’s our job as communicator and as retailers people to continue telling that story and to be able to get that message through. That’s communication and I think that kind of just goes through all different levels of our company so that is definitely our company model.

This was the first of a two-part interview with Denise Williamson, founder of Williamson PR and 180 the store. You’ll definitely want to catch part two where she discusses the tactics that she’s used to grow her business, the need for retailers to connect with the community, and the inverse relationship between rents and great retail innovation. Click the link to learn more.

David Zweifler

David is the founder of Gordon Magazine. David's experience spans investment banking, journalism, marketing and technology.

David Zweifler