County Road 42 in Burnsville is to big box stores what 50th & France is to boutiques. You pass all the usual suspects: Costco, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, Cub Foods, and so on and so forth, to get to the newest player—at least, new to us here in the north—At Home, "the home décor superstore.”
Which is fun to say.
It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday, just one week after opening, and day before the requisite red ribbon was officially cut by local officials, and the store was bustling. Women pushing strollers, others leaning on canes, almost everyone steering carts piled high with shower curtains and plastic trash cans and pots and pans and area rugs. I’ve honestly never seen such a large concentration of decorative birdhouses. Or outdoor cushions. There was a nice looking contemporary sofa in gray that, at $400, could make Ikea insecure. A home office vignette featured trendy Lucite chairs for $99.
The Texas-based company that owns At Home has been around for more than 30 years—most of those as Garden Ridge, which had a reputation for being, all due respect, a dump. After declaring bankruptcy in 2004 and reorganizing, CEO Lee Bird rebranded the company in 2014 as At Home and refocused on "home décor for every style, at every day low prices." One of his key hires was a career retailer whose name might be familiar to Twin Cities shoppers: Lynne Gonsior was a senior home buyer at Marshall Field’s, and then Target, before founding Uber Baby boutiques (this was years before Uber became a method of transport). She moved to Texas three years ago to work for Pier 1, and jumped over to At Home as district merchandising manager almost two years ago. Her Texas friends thought she was nuts. But Gonsior saw the potential.
“Home décor has become like fast fashion," Gonsior said as we trekked past pillows and patio sets. One day, you want cobalt blue accents; six weeks later, it’s on to something else. It’s the little things.”
But we already have Ikea for "little" things. And Home Goods—who doesn’t love Home Goods? And Target, where the typical aisles of designer-driven home accessories have recently morphed into a department, with table settings and a whole new level of lifestyle merchandising.
At Home doesn’t have Nate Berkus, or any other celebrity designers, for that matter. It doesn’t even have its own internal design team. A nimble group of buyers study the trends, and call on their vendors to make them "globally inspired" wooden giraffes and "boho chic" lanterns. Almost all the merchandise filling the 107,000-square feet of store space is unique to At Home. A lot of it looks pretty decent, on the surface at least. But then, no one—least of all At Home—is expecting these tables and chairs and ceramic accessories to become family heirlooms. At Home wants you back next season, when the Cuban influence is going to be prominently reflected in home furnishings.
This is a volume game. If its competitors have four wood trays to choose from, At Home has 44. Patio furniture is sold year round—more than 65 styles, in 18 sizes. Five hundred new products arrive every week.
It’s a bit like Menards in scale—minus the random barrels of cheese puffs—with a feminine touch. Gonsior’s team takes great care to show trendy items on end caps, and sprinkle room displays throughout the store to break up the long aisles and warehouse-style setting. What Hobby Lobby has done for crafting, At Home wants to do with home décor. Massive amounts of product. This is not a shopping experience designed to be convenient or quick. Gonsior says the average customer spends two hours at At Home. Two hours! You could place an order with Amazon.com and have it at your doorstep faster than that.
At Home doesn’t even sell online. Its customers apparently enjoy the experience of touching 72 lamps and sititng in 56 chairs, from country to contemporary; traditional to "tribal cadence." And I can see how, if you were to decide on a Saturday morning that your chipped and mismatched bathroom accessories must go— immediately, At Home would be a handy one-stop shop. You know you'll find options. You know they won't cost nearly as much as fixing a leaky faucet. Plus, those little things will be pleasing to look at each time you use the facilities. For now, anyway.
“This is working for us,” Gonsior says.
At Home has 104 stores nationwide and plans to open 20 more this fiscal year. A second Twin Cities location will open in June in Blaine. Not far from Hobby Lobby.