When Habitat went into administration and closed 30 stores in 2011, three years shy of its 50th anniversary, it seemed the death knell for this heritage British brand. After being launched by Terence Conran and Philip Pollock in 1964 and dominating the mid-range homeware market in the decades that followed, it had begun to falter in the face of increased competition and the rise of online shopping. The years since have seen turmoil on the high street as company after company - from BHS in 2016 to, most recently, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer - announcing losses and closures. And yet, against this background of retail doom and gloom, Habitat has been quietly staging a comeback; so much so that it is set to open two brand-new flagship stores, its first in 10 years. One will open in September as part of the newly expanded Westfield London, while the second, in Brighton’s town centre, will follow in October.
It is, unquestionably, a risky strategy: can Habitat successfully invest in physical stores when others are closing at a rate of knots? According to its MD, Clare Askem, it’s a case of been there, done that, and learned from the experience. When, in the summer of 2011, Home Retail Group purchased the intellectual property rights and the remaining three stores, the company was, she says, “essentially a start-up, in terms of not having any infrastructure, or systems, or people. That ‘heavy lifting’ of restructuring had already been done, and Habitat had already made some of those decisions that we’re seeing other retailers having to face up to today.”
Up to 2011, “the business had lost its way,” says Askem. “At heart we’re a product business, and the product wasn’t right in terms of the design and the price point. But also, the stores, the website and the practicalities of delivery weren’t in as great shape as they should have been.”
The company’s approach under its new owners was to invest heavily in online, making the website, rather than the stores, its “brand home” - a place to connect with customers through editorial-style content, as well as products. “It’s a mindset,” says Askem. “If you think about your website as being just a place to sell stuff, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not OK anymore to have a poor website or a poor delivery service. You’ve got to do all of those things well.” The company now guarantees that smaller items will be delivered within three days, larger pieces of furniture within 10, and also offers click and collect, for customers who don’t want to wait in for deliveries, while online sales now account for 65 per cent of its business revenue.
Once the website was in check, the intention was to “curate physical versions of it”, which duly followed when the company was bought by Sainsbury’s in September 2016, and the first Mini Habitats, small branches of the store situated within Sainsbury’s supermarkets, opened the following month. That particular venture threw up certain challenges, Askem admits. “We’d never had to tackle the problem of shopping trolleys in our stores before,” she says, though it has ultimately proved to be successful for the brand.
The product offering has also seen changes, particularly under Kate Butler, who has been with the company for five years and took over as Head of Product Design in January. “It wasn’t a coherent offering; it was quite confused,” she says of Habitat’s collection in 2011. “It was trying to appeal to such a broad range of people. We have a contemporary, modern look and feel, and that’s not going to appeal to every single person, but it’s our point of view, and it’s something we’re very proud of.”
Butler is keen to point out that she and her three-strong team design all of the products themselves, rather than buying in. This gives them the opportunity to give each piece a design identity - one that acknowledges Habitat’s original DNA, but has also changed and crystallised over the past few years. “We will always recognise where we come from and what our heritage is, but by nature of being a design-led brand, we will evolve, because that’s what our customers want,” she says. “They don’t want us to be stuck in the past. We have to keep moving.”
Their aim, says Butler, is not to focus on design trends, but “because we are so plugged into everything and have such a broad way of being inspired and designing our product, it just happens that way”. Recent collections have tapped into a certain zeitgeist: this past season rattan - particularly its rattan bed - has been huge for the brand, and its figurative cushions and rugs with Picasso-esque eye and hand motifs have also provided strong sales.
Perhaps due to its democratic approach, offering well-designed yet accessible homewares on the high street at a time when such things weren’t readily available outside London, Habitat occupies a special place in the hearts of many British consumers. Everyone, says Askem, has their personal Habitat story, whether they be a customer, a supplier, or a candidate turning up for a job interview: the dining table they had growing up; the Saturday afternoons being dragged around Habitat stores by their parents; or the plates they bought for their first flat. This emotional attachment has in part given the company the confidence to embark on its expansion plans. “There’s a lot of love for the brand; there’s been massive support,” says Askem. “That’s made our job easier.”
But in today’s market, nostalgia isn’t enough. The brand also needs to connect with new customers, which it is doing largely through collaborations. Its most recent tableware collection, by Jackson & Levine (TV presenter Laura Jackson and Radio 1 DJ Alice Levine) sold out in three hours when it launched last month. It will also tailor collaborations to mark the opening of the new flagship stores: rugs designed by local artists in Brighton, and in Westfield, a textiles collection with Hannah Weiland of fashion brand Shrimps.
The design of each flagship will, likewise, reflect its location. Brighton will be a “more local, neighbourhood” store, while Westfield will be part of the “home hub” being established at the mall, and will accordingly need to set out its own stall in its windows to stand out amid its competitors.
There will certainly be much anticipation ahead of the new stores’ openings among Habitat’s loyal fans, delighted to see the beginnings of a return to the high street. And, no doubt, much interest from certain other big British brands, keen to see whether its strategy, and this bold move, will pay off.