Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Losing That Lovin' Feeling For Williams-Sonoma

I was recently wandering around Summit Mall and found myself outside one of my favorite old haunts, Williams-Sonoma. I fondly remember spending hours and hours of my time looking through every nook of the store and spending even more time pouring over the catalogs, envisioning a kitchen that had all of the wonderful cookware, gadgets, and electronics that this high-end boutique store could offer. I became even more excited when a good friend of mine got a job as a salesperson. Not only could I have my cake, but I got a discount on it, too. I made up my wishlist and like the good Santa Claus she was, she filled my culinary stocking with lots of goodies. I'd like to think it was because I was an especially good boy that year, but the reality was I simply paid her to do it.

From the first moment I walked into Williams-Sonoma, I've known that these high-end products don't come cheap. And I'm okay with that. If there was one thing I could come to expect from the products sold at this store chain, it was quality products. If I ever had any problems with an item, I returned/exchanged them with no problems and no arguments from anyone. In fact, the only real problem I ever had was with a Kitchen Aid Pro 600 stand mixer, which I got on sale for $299 because they were phasing out the color schemes associated with spring. Apparently there was something wrong with the gear mechanism and as I started using the mixer for heavy duty bread kneading, small metal shavings began raining down into my dough. Definitely not a good thing. I packed it back up, took it back to the store from which I purchased it, and they replaced it. No muss. No fuss.

Over the years as I have become a more experienced cook, I found myself buying less and less when I stopped in for a visit. It wasn't that there wasn't some cool new gadget to obsess over, it was just that I had all the basics in my kitchen now: knives, pots, pans, essential tools. For a while I was even buying some of their jarred sauces, especially the spicy peanut Asian sauce that I used quite a bit with udon noodles. But even that stopped when I decided to teach myself how to make it from scratch. I had gone from Love to Mild Indifference over the course of a decade.

That all changed yesterday. As I walked through the front door of the store, I was curiously drawn over to the pots and pans section of the space. I spotted this:

Image ownership and copyright by Williams-Sonoma.

This, gentle reader, was the All-Clad Ultimate Chicken Roaster. It is essentially a roasting pan with a long curved neck that suspends the chicken above the pan. And what fabulous price was being charged for this ultimate chicken roaster pan? Well, the suggested retail was $250, but the good folks at Williams-Sonoma had decided to give the chicken roasting public a break and were only asking $179.99!

Something snapped inside my head. I felt like I had eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and I suddenly knew of my culinary nakedness.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem spending a nice chunk of change to buy a really nice roasting pan. I have made many a roasted chicken, pork loin roast, and roasted root vegetable medley to prove that. What drove me to sudden fits of insanity was that here was a well-respected company, All-Clad, offering a culinary uni-tasker for $180 (or worse yet, $250 if you went with the suggested price)? I began to realize that a younger, more inexperienced version of myself would've been all over it. It was exactly the kind of superfluous piece of hardware that I would have asked for as a Christmas or birthday gift.

I began to stumble around the store, looking for other bits of overpriced insanity. First up, I discovered the All-Clad Timer/Clock. A hefty little gadget, it was priced at $39.95. I can hear your question now, gentle reader and no, there wasn't a probe thermometer involved, it was just a TIMER. For $40. Seriously? Up next, a pair of kitchen tongs for $28.50. Don't people know that they can get kitchen tongs at any good restaurant supply store for much, much less? My favorite overpriced tool, however, had to be the vegetable and garlic choppers. Priced at $29.95 and $18.00 respectively, the thought that people either have so little time or so little skill with a knife that they need to spend nearly $50 on these two gadgets made me quite sad and mad at the same time.

Ultimately, Williams-Sonoma (and its other high-end boutique brethren) is a business and is looking to sell what it thinks its customers want. I guess it just wasn't until today that I realized that their business model had evolved to embrace the same "dumbing down" that has happened on Food Network since its inception in the mid 1990's. People either don't want to or don't have time to learn proper knife skills or how to roast a chicken regardless of whether you have the Ultimate Chicken Roaster or just a plain old aluminum foil pan you bought at the grocery store.

I guess what saddened me the most was that trips to Williams-Sonoma used to inspire me to be a better cook and learn new things, be it ingredients or techniques. I firmly believe that higher quality kitchen products do help you to turn out better and more consistent food. Unfortunately, the only thing I saw during my trip yesterday were gadgets that didn't help to further knife skills and overpriced uni-taskers that have no place in the home of a serious cook.

I could say that it's not you, Williams-Sonoma, it's me. But that wouldn't be true. It is you. I think the love affair may finally be over; it's time to break up and move on.


Mahala said...

I seldom enter the doors at WS. It is so horrendously overpriced that I finally became offended. I acknowledge that it is a business, and therefore is in it to make money. But the sheer volume of gimmickry in cooking utensils has become tiresome. As to the food they sell, this past Christmas I treated myself to a panettone with candied chestnuts at a hefty $39. I hadn't done that in a few years as I was trying to conserve both money and calories. To my disappointment, it was a cheapened version. The candies chestnuts were dry and much smaller than in previous years. Certainly not worth the money. I have fallen out of love with WS. And with good reason.

Dine O Mite said...

If I knew someone who worked there I'd buy pots and pans. Beyond that, there isn't a great deal I'd buy there. The only way I could justify paying that much for the pots and pans is if I could get a discount. I go in there all the time, but I don't buy anything.

Melissa said...

I think you've come of age as a cook when you walk into W-S and can't find anything you need.

Anonymous said...

employees of Williams-Sonoma aren't allowed to purchase things in our store and then be paid for them by friends (or anyone else) its a blatant violation of corporate policy, so whomever you knew that worked during the holiday season was jeopardizing their job.. and while retail, even at Williams-Sonoma, isn't a glamorous job, it is still a job for many of us. Also, yes we do have $28 tongs, but we also carry $10 & $12 tongs -Made in the USA no less, as well as the same $12 ones you can find at other retailers. We do carry a lot of expensive things, but we have many items that you can't find at other retailers, we carry goods from Europe that other retailers don't have... Williams-Sonoma isn't trying to be just another mass market retailer. When you come into a Williams-Sonoma, our associates are knowledgeable about the products and can tell you features and benefits and compare it to other products in the store to ensure you are purchasing the right product for your need. Also when you come into WS, many times you have the option to try the things we sell so you can decide if that's what you need or want... I know I have brought out knife sharpeners, juice extractors, coffee makers and any number of other things so a customer can try it, that way they can leave with confidence that they are getting what they came for.
If you feel that our prices are too high, then you can shop at the beginning of July & right after Christmas for our sales... always good deals.
Its too bad you've closed your mind to a great store, we'll miss you.

Tino said...

@Anonymous: I think you may have missed the point of my post. It wasn't the fact that Williams-Sonoma is expensive. Or the fact that WS carries products that mass market retailers don't. Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in the store would realize that. My point was that WS is now selling overpriced uni-taskers like the Ultimate Chicken Roasting pan and the onion and garlic choppers. Would I balk at spending $200 on a really good roasting pan? Absolutely not. $200 on a roast pan SPECIFICALLY for roasting chickens (or other fowl)? You'd better believe it.

I'm not sure why you felt you needed to defend the customer service. The one spot where I mentioned it, I actually complimented WS. I've always had very good service at any of the stores I've visited.

As for my friend, I'm sure it probably was/is against corporate policy. However, she offered, and at such a steep discount, I wasn't about to turn her down. Would you?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on the uni-tasking.... I don't get it most days either, but a lot of those things are what sells, so unfortunately that is what we carry :(
In defense of the chicken roaster... the arm comes off so you can just use it as a roasting pan... duel purpose , at least :)

J said...

We usually follow Alton Brown's rule -- if it doesn't multi-task, then we don't need it. I usually walk into a WS and back out without buying a thing. I will check their sale table without finding one good bargain. Curiously, Sur La Table is the same. $$$$ for stuff we can live without.

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