The decision to close the George Watts & Son luxury tabletop and gift emporium, as well as the adjoining tea shop, stemmed from a multitude of business pressures coupled with a real estate opportunity that couldn’t be ignored, the company’s CEO claims.
“I think the most important thing to come away from this is that our assessment of the (business) environment was fundamental to the final decision,” says Sam Watts, in an extensive email conversation with Milwaukee Magazine. “We believe that several important factors, both positive and negative, have presented themselves and we felt the need to apply our business acumen as opposed to allowing ourselves to become victims of circumstance, or even worse, victims of complacency and inaction.”
Watts, the great-great-grandson of founder George Watts, announced late Friday that the business, whose roots date back more than 140 years, will continue to operate as an online entity and will offer specialty goods that have been hallmarks of the brand. The retail storefront and restaurant will remain open, with normal operating hours, until after Christmas Day.
Watts told Milwaukee Magazine in an August interview that the business had no immediate intention of becoming a strictly online operation.
“We want people to still come out and shop. We could just be an online company and we’d be just fine. But there’s still a need to touch and feel a product, especially when you are buying a piece of Steuben Crystal and spending $1,300,” Watts said at the time.
Watts says he still supports that position. “I feel strongly that in order to be successful in this retail avenue, that you need a storefront and goods that people touch, feel, and fall in love with.”
However, he says his opinion is “but one of many within my family and trusted inner circle.”
“That’s not to say that my opinion isn’t important, just that there are innumerable factors and influence that have impact over a decision of this magnitude,” Watts claims.
“So, simply, the decision was not one that had been made in August, but that is not to say that the topic had not been broached by the family. In fact, we were often asked about eliminating the brick and mortar building. The decision was also not forced or done in haste. To the contrary, every part about this was all carefully calculated and measured.”
Watts insists that the move is a group decision “premised on the business landscape and our resources and opportunities.”
“And make no mistake, self-preservation, in whatever form, was also given great consideration,” he says.
The painstaking decision came after weighting several positive factors, including the recent rise of the downtown real estate market, availability of low interest rates, and conversations with potential suitors for space within the Watts building along North Jefferson Street in downtown Milwaukee, Watts says.
Negative developments also factored into the decision, including the overall decline of the luxury gift industry, the recent elections, consumer sentiment, and the closing of key benchmark stores Michael C. Fina and Peggy Karr Glass.
Michael C. Fina, the renowned luxury tableware, engagement jewelry and wedding registry business, closed its signature store on Park Avenue in New York City earlier this year while transforming into an online-only retailer. Peggy Karr Glass, a New Jersey producer of handmade glass platters and bowls that had been in business for 30 years, ceased operations this summer.
“If you removed the emotion from the equation, continuing to operate in our current format is a disservice to the company and its investors, especially given the new opportunity in front of us,” Watt says.
Watts says he is not yet at liberty to discuss immediate plans for the building, except that the space will be transitioned for the next occupants once the store and tea shop close.
The building and other holdings will continue to operate under the Watts Family name and umbrella, and the company plans to retain space for its online operations in the current location and use it as a distribution hub, according to Watts.
In the earlier interview, Watts stated that the about half of the business’ sales come via the Internet, or are at least generated by people shopping online and then coming into the store.
Over the past few years, George Watts & Son reduced its on-site store inventory, which freed space for other tenants in the building, including DeLind Gallery of Fine Art, which closed in 2015, and later the Zita Bridal Salon and Kesslers Diamonds.
“We have this tremendous asset in the building,” Watts said in the prior interview.
Watts calls the decision to close the store and tea shop “difficult but necessary in the evolution of our company.”
“We do realize what this decision means, and we are deeply saddened,” he says. “However, we are not defeated, nor are we hopeless and in despair. We are energized and invigorated with the new direction and, while it may take others time to acclimate and adjust to the new feel, we’ve already embraced our new endeavor.”