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What’s in store for the future of British retail?

In this time of uncertainty for the high street, constant innovation is vital. But eagle-eyed consumers may be able to reap the rewards – and help keep bricks-and-mortar stores afloat

Illustration Shonagh Rae
Illustration Shonagh Rae

When it comes to retail, it seems we’ve never had it so bad. ‘It’s the death of the high street!,’ scream the headlines, with the papers regularly heralding news of plummeting profits and brands entering administration – cue tumbleweed rolling past shuttered shopfronts.

The consensus among homeware operators is that with Brexit uncertainty, an ineffective government and a stagnant home market, no one is investing in ‘big ticket items’ such as sofas and beds right now.

Combine that with crippling business rates (a tax with archaic roots that’s unique to the UK),which, for some, is an additional 51 per cent of their rents – well, no wonder it’s tough out there. As Hamish Mansbridge, CEO of Heal’s, says: ‘For retailers, flat is the new up!’

And yet, there is a positive side. Such a climate separates the wheat from the chaff, which can only be a good thing for the customer. What’s more, leading UK homeware retailers are adopting the optimistic spirit of 1980s pop sensation BillyOcean (When The Going Gets Tough, etc...). Enthusiastically rising to the challenge, they are using the downturn to listen to customers, examine the data, test and learn, ensure sustainability is high on the agenda, re-evaluate strategy and invest in design and technology to futureproof their businesses – and that’s all good news for the consumer.

Remember, we’re a nation of shopkeepers and innovators – it’s deeply embedded in the British DNA. The high street is suffering, but with some help from canny legislators and inventive retailers, it can flourish. So, here are six rules from experts that brands can follow to ensure they survive and thrive...

1. THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT

      Consumer behaviour has never been so fast-paced and in flux – just look at the current rethink on single-use plastics. Retailers are waking up to this. ‘You can’t stand still; constant reinvention is essential. No-one can plan a five-year strategy now,’ says Stephen Briars, creative director of The Conran Shop, who have just opened a brand new expansive space in Selfridges (see below).‘We have to reinvent constantly to stay afloat and grow different aspects of the business.’

      At the core of this is growing e-commerce (many brands are aiming for this to account for 50 per cent of turnover), but more generally, operators need to be light on their feet and able to react and adapt according to changing consumer behaviour. Progressive retailers are trialling a range of models, from social media initiatives to bricks and mortar – take the Mini Habitat outposts in Sainsbury’s, the dedicatedJohn Lewis & Partners At Home stores in out-of-town retail parks, and the way in which independents such as SCP and Pinch Design have opened on London’s Pimlico Road to target the industry professional.

      The Conran Shop at Selfridges
      The Conran Shop at Selfridges
      The Conran Shop

      2. E-COMMERCE WILL SAVE OUR STORES

      We all shop in a multitude of ways, from a quick online buy to a leisurely day of retail therapy. All the operators we spoke to have faith in the high street, but as Clare Askem, Habitat’s managing director, says, ‘customers shop in an omnichannel way’, and brands need to offer consistency across the board.

      ‘E-commerce and bricks and mortar are always completely entwined,’ explains Peter Ruis of Anthropologie. ‘No-one will buy one of our sofas without sitting on it in-store first.’ You only have to consider how many e-commerce brands – from MatchesFashion.com to Loaf – have opened bricks-and-mortar stores to see that both analogue and digital shopping need to co-exist.

      ‘We know that with every homeware purchase made at John Lewis & Partners, two thirds of our customers have used both channels,’ asserts the store’s buying director Jonathan Marsh. So, shops are here to stay and are set to offer more to the consumer in both convenience and experience.

      Anthropologie store , Tunbridge Wells
      Anthropologie, Tunbridge Wells
      Anthropologie

      3. UNIQUE MERCHANDISING WILL TRIUMPH

      ‘The UK homeware shopper is braver and bolder in their tastes, and our buying needs to reflect that,’ says Askem. Social media – particularly Instagram and Pinterest – has the potential to turn everyone into an amateur stylist. Expressing ourselves via our homes has never been so important.

      Bryony Sheridan, buyer at Liberty, agrees. ‘The social and economic climate is forcing us to socialise at home and encouraging us to invest more energy and income into creating a home, even if we’re renting,’ she reasons. ‘Shopping should be an experience.’

      Stores need to surprise, inspire and offer a sense of discovery, with well-informed staff to entice and retain the increasingly design-savvy consumer. Expect cross-category merchandising and fewer trend-led room sets, because although shoppers are inspired by themes, they don’t buy that way – instead, they mix and match more organically. Both Liberty and John Lewis & Partners report that coloured and patterned tableware is matching and exceeding sales of plain white dinnerware for the first time.

      Differentiation is also key. ‘Our homeware is more about collectables – unique treats at sensible prices, such as hand-thrown pots or jugs,’ explains Mansbridge. As Ruis says: ‘If you have a unique assortment that is just yours, then you will be fine.’ All of which is good news for the consumer, as we can expect to find more unique pieces and exclusive, own-brand designs in stores.

      Astier de Villate at Liberty, London
      Astier de Villate at Liberty, London
      Liberty

      4. SHOPS NEED TO BUILD STRONG COMMUNITY RELATIONS

      A vital ingredient of a healthy store is connecting with the local community, whether that’s by working with regional suppliers or designers or inviting customers to in-store events. Such an approach is driving Anthropologie’s expansion, says Ruis.

      ‘It’s important to make things feel local and personal,’ explains Askem of Habitat’s strategy. ‘In Brighton, we collaborated with local artists, turning their artworks into rugs, and in Leeds, we recently invited a local interior designer to give a talk.’

      Heal’s runs its annual Festival of Light, showcasing the latest lighting products from brands worldwide. Meanwhile, SCP hosts events in conversation with prominent interior design names such as Matthew Hilton and Ilse Crawford. Such programmes are a positive way to inspire and educate the customer, while also building loyalty.

      Habitat, Brighton, Lois O'Hara, artist, Pride, 2019
      Habitat, Brighton
      Photography: James Pike

      5. DESIGN WILL LEAD THE WAY

      Pioneering homeware retailers recognise that investing in design is key to differentiation and a rosy future. The Conran Shop is leveraging partnerships with major brands to release exclusive pieces.‘All 25 of our limited-edition chairs with Vitra sold out in four weeks,’ says Briars. In addition, the brand is collaborating with and sponsoring emerging and younger designers and brands to broaden its audience and appeal to a 20- to 35-year-old age demographic.

      ‘Design has never been so important,’ agrees Philippa Prinsloo, head of design at John Lewis & Partners, who has expanded her in-house team by a third to 28 designers, with five principles framing the output – one being ‘future-focused’. There is also less emphasis on big name designers. ‘We felt that creating that capability to design ourselves was necessary going forward,’ adds Marsh.

      Meanwhile, the Heal’s Discovers programme continues – the inaugural showcase 15 years ago gave Russell Pinch a springboard into business – albeit in a new format adapted for the tougher retail climate. ‘Rather than just developing one-off products, we pledge to work with graduates for a year, helping them with marketing, PR, finding buyers – something money can’t buy,’ explains Mansbridge.

      Heal’s store, Tottenham Court Road
      Heal’s store, Tottenham Court Road
      Heal’s

      6. VIRTUAL REALITY WILL CHANGE THE WAY WE SHOP

      There is fresh impetus to combine digital tools with well-informed staff to make buying convenient for customers, with improved visualisation software in stores such as John Lewis & Partners, The Conran Shop and SCP. ‘Technology must add value and convenience,’ says Marsh. ‘We’re investing in new virtual reality tools at John Lewis & Partners to make it easier to see what furniture will look like in your own home. This will enable more confident purchasing.

      Top brands: what’s next?

      Liberty

      ‘Sea Grass’ cotton sateen duvet set, from £300, Liberty
      ‘Sea Grass’ cotton sateen duvet set, from £300, Liberty
      Liberty

      The Interiors Emporium at Liberty’s physical store is a homeware enthusiast’s dream, but even so, online sales have increased from 29per cent of turnover last year to 36 per cent in 2019. Many customers don’t own property, but are still investing in affordable art, smaller furniture and statement pieces that can be moved between homes.

      Consumers are now braver when it comes to mixing styles, so Liberty is combining its heritage brands such as Fornasetti with cult pieces by the likes of Anissa Kermiche and Luke Edward Hall. Autumn developments include a new fourth-floor bedding department, which will showcase the debut Liberty London Bedding collection, featuring the brand’s iconic florals and reworked prints. libertylondon.com

      Heal’s
      This 200-year-old British heritage brand now has six stores, with outposts in Birmingham and Westfield London having recently opened. Stores are organised by furniture type, such as sofas or tables, to ease shopping functionality. Heal’s is also growing its e-commerce, which currently accounts for 40 per cent of turnover. Instagram is a key part of the strategy for younger audiences.

      Products on offer at Heal’s have shifted from generic items to unique, handcrafted pieces to treasure. Meanwhile, the retailer’s emphasis on collaborations with emerging designers continues– the ‘Heal’s Discovers’ initiative is evolving to offer business coaching for designers. Sofas are its bestselling category, with four new designs to come this autumn. heals.com

      ‘Isola’ armchair, £2,599, and ottoman, £1,099, both by Lucy Kurrein; ‘Paris’ chandelier, £449; ‘Cezanne’ side table, £449; ‘Ripple’ carafe, £29, and champagne saucer, £35 for two, both by Ferm Living; ‘Balloon’ vase by Louise Roe, £70, all Heal’s
      ‘Isola’ armchair, £2,599, and ottoman, £1,099, both by Lucy Kurrein; ‘Paris’ chandelier, £449; ‘Cezanne’ side table, £449; ‘Ripple’ carafe, £29, and champagne saucer, £35 for two, both by Ferm Living; ‘Balloon’ vase by Louise Roe, £70, all Heal’s
      Heal’s

      Habitat
      Owned by Sainsbury’s since 2016, Habitat is undergoing a ‘test and learn’ period of trialling different store formats and sizes in order to meet changing and varied customer needs. New stores have recently opened in Leeds, Westfield London and Brighton, and there are 11 Mini Habitat stores in Sainsbury’s supermarkets. However, 70 percent of its turnover comes from online purchases.

      There is a shift towards interesting products that feel less mass-produced – one bestselling table has a concrete-tiled top – and furniture with a smaller footprint that is often multi-use and foldable to suit more compact homes. This autumn sees a big focus on lighting at Habitat, with the launch of 80 new designs. habitat.co.uk

      ‘Austin’ dining table, £495; ‘Fuji’ salt and pepper mills, £10; ‘Carmen’ vase, £335; spoons from ‘Turini’ 16-piece cutlery set, £95; ‘Dora’ tumblers, £8 for four; ‘Inara’ bowls, £6 each; ‘Nessa’ 12-piece dinnerware set, £100; ‘Larsa’ chairs, £130 each; ‘Finchley’ pendant light, £80, all Habitat
      ‘Austin’ dining table, £495; ‘Fuji’ salt and pepper mills, £10; ‘Carmen’ vase, £335; spoons from ‘Turini’ 16-piece cutlery set, £95; ‘Dora’ tumblers, £8 for four; ‘Inara’ bowls, £6 each; ‘Nessa’ 12-piece dinnerware set, £100; ‘Larsa’ chairs, £130 each; ‘Finchley’ pendant light, £80, all Habitat
      Habitat

      John Lewis & Partners
      Ninety per cent of people in the UK live within 30 minutes of a John Lewis & Partners store. The retailer’s in-house design team has been expanded to create more own-brand pieces and react to the growth in open-plan living (furniture is becoming more modular to adapt to open-plan spaces and a lack of storage) and the ‘casualisation’ of dining(customers are eschewing formal dinnerware and mixing and matching crockery).

      New in-store software is being trialled in three outposts, allowing customers to visualise pieces in their homes. Service is still key, with initiatives such as the Home Design Service, decorating advice talks and the purchase of home improvement service Opun. Expect to see new ceramics and bedlinen ranges this autumn. johnlewis.com

      Autumn bedding from John lewis
      Pillow’ bedstead, from £599; washed linen pillowcases, £15 each; washed linen duvet cover, from £80; washed linen sheet, from £50; ‘No.019’ throw in ‘Night Sky’, £65; washed cotton throws in ‘Auburn’ and ‘Plaster’, £80 each; ‘Rayna’ side table, £69; ‘No.210’ lamp, £175; ‘No.018’ tumblers, £30 for four, all John Lewis & Partners
      John Lewis

      SCP
      As the mid-market furniture category has grown more crowded, SCP founder Sheridan Coakley has taken his offer even more luxe, targeting professional clients by opening the store’s second showroom in London’s Pimlico design district.‘By moving further upmarket,’ says Coakley, ‘we can produce more pioneering products.’ This newer outpost concentrates on furniture and furnishings, and is the only place you will find pieces by US lighting brand Roll & Hill andBrooklyn-based wallpaper company Calico.

      Around 25 per cent of SCP’s turnover is from e-commerce, but the retailer is introducing 3D visualisation tools to stores to encourage footfall.Many customers are returning with furniture they bought in the 1990s to be reupholstered, which, as Coakley says, ‘is a great endorsement of what we do’. This autumn, the Shoreditch store will present upholstery pieces by David Weeks,Philippe Malouin and Matthew Hilton. scp.co.uk

      ‘Coax’ light by John Hogan for Roll & Hill, from £6,720, SCP
      ‘Coax’ light by John Hogan for Roll & Hill, from £6,720, SCP
      SCP


      The Conran Shop
      In its 46th year, The Conran Shop is strengthening its global position, recently opening in Paris’s Galeries Lafayette, with another store in Seoul,South Korea, to follow this autumn (featuring initiatives including a concierge service and VIP shopping). Meanwhile, back in the UK, itsSelfridges concession is doubling in size, reopening on 30 September.

      E-commerce sales have risen to 20 per cent in 2019, up from eight percent three years ago, and integration of bricks and mortar with digital isa key part of the retailer’s strategy. The Conran Shop hosts three major events every year, including during London Design Festival in September, and its exclusives with design brands continue. conranshop.co.uk

      Limited-edition ‘Tulip’ table by Eero Saarinen for Knoll in ‘Fusion Fire’ marble, £15,259, The Conran Shop
      Limited-edition ‘Tulip’ table by Eero Saarinen for Knoll in ‘Fusion Fire’ marble, £15,259, The Conran Shop
      The Conran Shop

      Anthopologie
      Embarking on an aggressive expansion plan, Anthropologie is set to add to its existing 12 UK stores, with Winchester and Belfast branches opening this year and another 10-12 planned for2020. Two stores in Paris and an Amsterdam outpost are also due to open this autumn.

      E-commerce accounts for 35 per cent of turnover with 90 per cent of sofas purchased online, but clearly tested out in store. The furniture category is only three years old, but reports huge growth.

      An emphasis on the experiential translates into events, which are popular with its loyal customer base, 55 per cent of whom are under 34. The brand likes to make strong connections with local communities, via both events and products. This autumn sees a furniture collaboration with SohoHome. anthropologie.com

      ‘Anya’dining table, £1,198; velvet ‘Elowen’ chair, £398, both Anthropologie
      ‘Anya’dining table, £1,198; velvet ‘Elowen’ chair, £398, both Anthropologie
      Anthropologie

      This feature appeared in ELLE Decoration September 2019.

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