The day Habitat died: June 24, 2011

Posted: November 15th, 2011

I had a new sofa delivered recently. I’d ordered it about four months previously. It was not from one of the great Italian maestros, it was from Habitat: Robin Day’s brilliant four-seater ‘Forum’ sofa to be exact. Regardless, you don’t expect to wait four months for delivery from a high-street store, even if it has been made to order. And it is precisely this chasm between expectation and reality that lies at the heart of the Habitat dilemma, and to my mind is the chief protagonist in its demise. And furthermore, yes, now that it’s UK rights and website have been sold to The Home Retail Group, owners of Homebase and Argos, I consider the brand as good as dead.

When the sale was announced, I was invited onto Newsnight by Kirsty Wark to air my views alongside Tom Dixon, creative director of the store from 1998-2008. And while this gave us the opportunity to air our disappointment at the fate of the brand, it didn’t afford time for a fully rounded argument. After all, officially Habitat wasn’t dead, just 30 of its UK stores closed, around 750 jobs lost and only the three London branches left open (Tottenham Court Road, King’s Road and Finchley Road). So surely there was some life left in the old girl yet? No.

Founded in 1964, Habitat was the Biba of homewares. Just as Barbara Hulanicki introduced communal changing rooms and inexpensive, fun fashion, so Terence Conran proffered duvets, chicken bricks and cheery crocks to a public eager for youthful change. You were invited to pluck products off open-plan shelves, music played all around, and the whole was like stepping into a fresh, new, alternative reality. Gone in a flash were the fusty accepted norms of interior design. This was the beginning of ‘Lifestyle’.

So what went wrong? It might be summed up by a question Tom once asked me. Why, he wanted to know, was Habitat considered an expensive Ikea rather than a cheap B&B Italia? Certainly, by the late 1980s the brand was suffering as the Swedish giant grew (it launched in the UK in 1987). But Ikea alone wasn’t the culprit. Simply put, the retail context had changed. Instead of being one of a kind, Habitat was now one of many, but without a clear point of difference. Sure the quality of product was better, but that’s something consumers only perceive over the long term, whereas in the purchasing moment, they just seemed unduly pricey. The thing is, at Habitat, the designs weren’t the problem, the management was. And they increasingly misunderstood ‘Lifestyle’.

By 1992 Terence had been forced to relinquish ownership, and the company was sold to the Ikano Group, controlled by the Kamprad (Ikea) family. By 2008, Habitat had losses approximating £13.8 million. One year later, and Ikano gave Hilco, the ‘re-structuring’ specialist who tore apart Borders, a £45 million ‘dowry’ to take the company off its hands.

Habitat had tried to stay ahead of the crowd, adopting a colour-led and seasonal approach to its collections that mimicked fashion’s spring/summer and autumn/winter calendar. Then there was the ‘VIP’ range, a selection of products ‘designed’ by celebrities including a CD rack from Sharleen Spiteri, a ‘Secret Box’ by Kate Winslet and a champagne glass from Tanya Streeter. I mean, really. When there are so many great young designers out there? Sorry Tom, but I loathed this range. Sadly it was rather successful. But people weren’t going to Habitat per se, they were going for the celebrity-endorsements. It turned out to be the same sort of short-term trick magazines employ when they cover-mount free gifts. I’ve watched someone buy a glossy for a funky nail polish and throw the magazine away.

Thus the unique DNA of Habitat was slowly being eroded and the shops lost their vigour. A brief glimmer of hope came when the beleaguered company took over an abandoned cinema on London’s Regent Street. Under Tom’s direction, replete with buzzy cafe and a dynamic layout, it came close to re-igniting the experiential excitement that used to be the Habitat shopping experience. It was also one of the first stores to be closed by Hilco. It was subsequently snapped up by Burberry, a super smart example of brand management.

Why? Because Burberry understand a brand is more than what it produces. A lifestyle brand is an attitude. It’s a non-negotiable positioning statement that says what that brand will and won’t do. In the early days of Habitat this would have been things like ‘innovate’, ‘keep it simple’, ‘help people enjoy their homes’, ‘inspire and excite’. Today it‘s more like ‘flog stuff’.

The Home Retail Group seems to believe it can sell Habitat via its Homebase and Argos outlets, imagining it will draw into its realms a shiny new middle-class consumer. What do they have in mind? A stack of chairs and tables propped in a tidy corner with a cappuccino machine and a big logo above the lot? A few extra-specially glossy dedicated pages in the catalogue? This categorically isn’t how to sell ‘Lifestyle’. And I guarantee the Homebase customer won’t get it – or pay for it, either. The fact that this isn’t blindingly obvious to the Group, is Habitat’s death knell tolling loud and clear. And this despite Home Retail Group chief executive Terry Duddy saying as the deal went through, ‘There’s no value in us doing anything to undermine this brand; it’s about preserving its integrity.’ Right.

They didn’t buy a brand they bought a logo, and they haven’t a clue how to use it. I give it two years max – should be plenty of time for them to sell off all the old stock. So I’d buy one of those Robin Day sofas while you can. As Conran himself said in a statement at the time, ‘I’m sad that my love child… appears to be dying.’ But then he recently showcased a new range at Marks & Spencer, declaring that high-street behemoth to be the new Habitat for the 21st Century.

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