Home for the holidays with Ballard Designs’ Karen Mooney

The omnichannel retailer’s new president builds on power of connection and staying close to the customer

As Black Friday was dawning, Karen Mooney, president of Ballard Designs, was feeling as relaxed and cheerful as her aspirational lifestyle brand’s goods. “The energy around the holidays started early and has stayed strong,” she said in the hours leading up to retail’s big day. “Our customers are more eager than ever to embrace the season with gifts and décor. They can’t wait to decorate as soon as possible so that they can savor every moment with their family and friends.”

Mooney ought to know. She’s been in close conversation with Ballard’s customers about their wants and needs for nearly 20 years now. “We started our blog — How to Decorate — before blogs were even called blogs,” she remembers.  Back then there was a lot of talk about just putting a bunch of content out there, but from the get-go she and her team resisted that urge.

Karen Mooney

“From the start, we wanted to be relevant, trusted, to offer our customers real educational information that engaged them, and that’s something we’ve been committed to for many years now.”

Today, Ballard’s consistently inspiring blog posts are augmented with email blasts, text messages and Instagram posts, of course, as well as a wildly popular podcast under the same How to Decorate name. The podcast launched in 2016 and for those wondering just how effective a podcast about decorating can be for reaching potential customers, the channel now boasts over 870,000 downloads annually.

“We’re trying to solve problems in a beautiful, but practical way,” Mooney relates. “That might be through customization, or personalization or modularity, but whatever we are doing we’re trying to figure out how to make her life simpler and more beautiful. And so, our messaging in our emails is often geared toward problem-solving, and in the blog and the podcast, it’s all about answering questions and education. It isn’t a random assortment of information out there. We come at this from the idea of, what does she need to know and what do we need to do to provide it?”

Named president in the spring of this year, Mooney arrived at the top job with an atypical background for a major retail executive in today’s marketplace. She joined the aspirational lifestyle brand some two decades ago as its art director. “My background is graphic design, that’s what I went to school for,” the executive explains. “I was living in Atlanta at the time, pregnant with my second child and looking for a job. And I wanted to be very, very particular about where I went. Ballard was a small company at the time, and I was a big fan of the brand, which really resonated with me. I knew it was a place I wanted to work because I loved the product and I got so excited every time the catalog arrived in my mail.”

This one’s a page-turner

Before going too much further, we’ll pause here to say a word or two about that catalog, which started out as a two-page , black-and-white brochure back in 1983. As the retailing legend goes, Helen Ballard got her start after winning Metropolitan Home magazine’s home decorating contest, getting the nod for Southeastern Home of the Year with her signature design mix of high/low, traditional and modern. Among the furnishings pictured in the resulting feature was a table with a dolphin-shaped base. Underscoring why differentiated product really matters, more than 500 readers contacted the magazine asking where they could purchase said table. Ballard recognized an opportunity loudly knocking, so she sold her condo to finance a direct-to-consumer business and published that first brochure a year later. 

Ballard’s Black Friday catalog — a long way from that first brochure

Ballard herself retired in 2002, but the company she founded is going strong as a part of Cornerstone Brands (think Frontgate, Grandin Road and Garnet Hill in addition to Ballard Designs), part of the Qurate Retail Group portfolio (HSN and QVC). Cornerstone, which last year generated $1 billion in revenue, with e-commerce accounting for 76% of total sales, operates a separate e-commerce site for each brand, distributes 166 million catalogs annually and has 21 retail and outlet stores. Thirteen of the locations, located across 10 states, are Ballard Designs stores.

According to Mooney, “as the brand grew over the years, there was a lot of angst about people purchasing high-ticket items without being able to touch and feel them, because when Helen started this, there was no way to get in front of the customer other than the catalog. There was no internet back then. So, we opened our first store in 2007 because we felt it was important for people to have that full experience, to be able to walk into the catalog and be in the look, and to be able to buy that look.”

These days, “people love going into the stores where we bring the brand to life, but now they go home and shop online too,” she says. “We find that once they touch the brand, they don’t necessarily have to go back to the brick-and-mortar location to buy more stuff, and that’s been a really great learning for us. In fact, today, we really consider the website to be our flagship store, because everybody can get on there, it’s easy to transact, and it’s a great way for us to educate the consumer, to give them all the bells and whistles, all the details.

Romantic and traditional, blue and white porcelain and chinoiserie patterns (mixed here with a pair of Connelly Benches, Andrews Coffee Table and Sinclair Towers and Console) have been a staple in the Ballard collection for decades. This season, the retailer debuted blue and white Christmas ornaments and other coordinating holiday décor.

“Oddly enough, Covid has really broken down that barrier for people. People who never would have shopped for their groceries online are now very comfortable doing that, and it’s the same with more expensive items like furniture. They’re just not as nervous about it anymore, and that’s been a wonderful opportunity for us as a company to have the brand well represented in every channel.” 

About that art director

From her start with the company, Mooney made it her business to do a lot more than art direct. She describes herself during her early years as “curious, and not just about the pretty part of the brand, but what actually made it tick, and how the business worked. I was never afraid to ask why or how, and I never encountered any hesitation from executives about answering the questions I was asking.” Over time, as she was encouraged and embedded in all parts of the business, Mooney went from running the creative department where she started, to taking over the merchandising department, and then eventually the marketing department. Most recently, prior to being named president, she served as senior vice president of brand marketing & creative, a role she held for seven years. It was during those years that she is credited with foundationally evolving and expanding the brand from a catalog business to a thriving omnichannel concern. 

Judy George

While her marketing background is unusual among leaders in the current retail landscape, consultant Judy George of Judy George International, formerly head of Domain, one of the original lifestyle retailers, says it’s actually quite surprising that more executives in home furnishings retail don’t land in the corner office with strong marketing backgrounds like Mooney’s.

“The biggest challenge facing any professional today is how to cut through the noise to create relationships with customers,” she says. “Yet, the home furnishings business for whatever reason has been driven for a long time by manufacturers and not retailers, and marketing has been viewed by many leaders as a largely low-level thought process. That’s why you see so many executives today with finance and operations backgrounds. I think that’s unfortunate, because I believe the only way to survive today is to get close to the consumer and the way to do that is to bring in a marketing professional who can cut through the noise. Frankly, I think the parent company of Ballard was absolutely brilliant in the decision to elevate Karen Mooney to the top spot. Mark my words: It’s a game-changer.”

Jena Hall

Jena Hall, chief creative officer of Jena Hall Designs, one of the few women in the furniture business to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, agrees with George’s assessment that marketing specialists like Mooney, while typically an exception, are an ideal choice to lead retail companies today. “A picture is worth 1,000 words and in today’s marketplace, visual impact translates to millions. Her background as the art director really was an excellent foundation, because she understands how to effectively communicate a concept and how it is going to work in a home to consumers who really need help. From the beginning, Ballard Designs has been successful because of how its product have been presented. The consumer thinks she’s flipping pages looking for a cocktail table or a chair or lamp, but when she sees the piece beautifully photographed, perfectly coordinated with other products in scale and palette, wrapped in engaging storytelling, she’s far more inclined to make multiple purchases that she hadn’t even planned on. Storytelling is Mooney’s superpower, and she’s been practicing it for 20 years.” 

Ellen Geffen

“It’s a brilliant move on Cornerstone’s part, because she is coming at this from a completely different perspective than most retailers,” says Ellen Gefen, owner of Gefen Marketing, “because people who really do marketing well understand that it drives everything within a company, from product to price to sales and distribution. It touches every aspect. What makes Ballard Designs great is that they talk a different language, and it’s one that resonates with consumers, just as it did for Karen Mooney when she decided she wanted to work for the company years ago.” 

Growing the brand

While lifestyle brands typically lose their specialness as they change ownership and grow beyond their entrepreneurial roots, Mooney says in many ways Ballard Designs “is still the same flower grown from the seed that Helen Ballard planted a long time ago. We’ve flourished and we’ve grown and evolved, but we’re still designing rooms and homes that are filled with layers of periods and provenance, just like she did.” 

For its legions of fans, the point of view is still as distinct as that original dolphin table. “Our teams design up to 90% of all of our products, based on what we see when we travel around the world getting inspiration and ideas from everywhere. That’s been difficult during the pandemic because our teams have been starved for travel. But while travel is ideal, there are little things you can do to get yourself inspired. Go for a walk, look around your neighborhood, go to a restaurant and look at the menu design. There are tiny things around us all that time that are inspirational, and we don’t have to be in the South of France to experience them. We just have to dig a little more.”

Key to the solutions-oriented offering: Everything shown is available at Ballard Designs, from custom fabrics to rugs and draperies, all supported by free design advice.

In terms of the product development process, the company’s merchants are “tied at the hip with our designers who actually put pen to paper or hand-paint a watercolor that will become a textile design for bedding,” the executive describes. “Each designer works with two merchants, and our merchant team is very analytical, but also creative, with some coming from home and some coming from fashion. They are challenged with looking at their assortment and then working with their design partner to fill voids.”

Whatever the product, the look and appeal continue to remain distinct because “we don’t spend a lot of time looking at our competition,” she says. “We’re very clear about our direction and what we provide to our customers. Our job isn’t to make your home look like Ballard. Our job is to bring your vision to life. We want our customer to mix and match our products with the beautiful antiques they inherited from their grandmother, or something they picked up at a flea market last weekend that they are in love with. I look at it like my closet. I didn’t buy everything in my closet at the same time and I can go in there daily and build an outfit that works. If we’re buying things for our home that we love, it’s going to work together. That’s the idea behind the layered look and pulling it together in an unexpected way that makes it all feel really fresh.”   

Though Mooney still gets “jazzed and excited about the product and the way we put the product together and present it to the consumer,” she says the “backhouse part, and the customer relationship, how we treat the customer, is just as important. From the way that the product arrives at your doorstep, how that person treats you, whether you need to have the item assembled or not, all that is very top of mind for me. Because I’m a customer too. I’m always redecorating something in the house, and I have stuff arriving all the time. I live the experience. And that matters just as much as the pretty, front-of-house.”

Indeed, she says, everything the retailer does is built on four tenets: Make it Easy, Make it Fulfilling, Make it Unique and Make it Irresistible. “The Make it Easy part means to make it easy for the customer to shop, to unbox, to feel the product, to get a swatch, whatever it is. The customer experience is an end-to-end experience, it’s not just about a transaction. It could be years of education and touchpoints and discussion and encouragement, and that doesn’t end at the doorstep when the product arrives. We want to have a lifetime of engagement with our customers, and we’re building a brand that we hope does that.”

Kimberley Wray

Kimberley Wray is an award-winning writer and marketing strategist who has worked behind the scenes for major change and transformation in the home furnishings industry for more than three decades.

View all posts by Kimberley Wray →

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