Cabinet Maker: Can somebody find the right home for Habitat?

It won’t be news to the furniture and homewares experts reading this, but many of Habitat’s products are once again available to buy instore in the UK regions, this time at Homebase.

Over the years, Habitat has seen its fair share of high and low points in its fortunes. Perhaps the lowest of these was reached with its last owner, the American business restructuring and insolvency specialist Hilco. Hilco purchased Habitat from Ikea, in a distressed financial state, when the Swedish furniture giant was keen to divest itself of the once great company.

Many foretold of the impending demise of Habitat under Hilco, with what now appear to have been well founded fears. In a short time, long standing Habitat stores were closed and a seemingly never ending period of promotional activity was used to drive heavily discounted sales. Consumer trust in the brand’s pricing policy soon collapsed, with shoppers simply deferring purchases until the next 20% off sale. Eventually, the business was placed in administration, and a shocked consumer reeled at the prospect of another once great brand disappearing from our beleaguered UK high streets.

Just when all appeared to have been lost, a lifeline was thrown to the company in 2011 when the Habitat brand, its designs, the three remaining London stores and website was acquired by the Home Retail Group, the owner of middling large format brands, Argos and Homebase.

The Habitat brand with its Terence Conran connection and trendy, middle class positioning was billed to offer Homebase the prospect of establishing some much needed credentials to complement its own mid market furniture and furnishings ranges. It was initially heralded as a smart move for the Home Retail Group in buying up one of the UK’s most iconic retail brands.

However, in my opinion, delivery of Habitat in its latest incarnation in UK Homebase stores is a sorry chapter and a tale of ill judged decisions and mismanagement. Habitat today, which resides for the most part in Homebase stores, for me, offers a fragmented, uninspiring and joyless shopping experience.

I strongly believe that the new Habitat in Homebase proposition should have been recreated as a dedicated shop-in-shop format. It could have been presented as ‘the best’ homewares offer in Homebase stores, providing a destination for disenfranchised Habitat devotees and for new fans alike up and down the land. Instead, Habitat ranges appear dismembered and scattered across the store by product category with illogical and sometimes cringing adjacencies. Although some new fixturing has been used to present the ranges amongst the general product aisles, this only appears to compound the problem, a few product bays here and there, a tile unit, a wallpaper stand and other freestanding fixtures miscellaneously placed instore.

By this, Homebase has diminished any residual brand value and market positioning and the delivery of any perceivable ‘customer experience’ for Habitat as it was once known. Habitat products are simply presented as an alternative product ‘label’ amongst many, similar others.

For me, those venturing in to shop the brand in Homebase will be very disappointed, they won’t enjoy the same shopping experience as they’d previously enjoyed in their own local Habitat store. Product presentation no longer speaks to consumers in an aspirational way.  The prospect of stumbling across something chic, or suspending judgment on its above average prices, just doesn’t happen when classic folding chairs are clumsily presented next to shower cubicles or the latest in quirky home decoratives are shown adjacent to a ‘clearance corner’ with gaudy plastic boxes filled with miscellaneous electrical and hardware items, wallpaper batch oddments and dented tins of paint!

I remember when the Norwich store was shut down, and I can imagine how the customers’ expressions of cooing satisfaction will turn to dismay as they enter Homebase to discover that the Habitat experience they excitedly expected is little more than a pale imitation, like Thornton’s in a Tesco store – it’s just not the same.

The instore failing is not the end of it either, the disjointed experience continues online. Customers who shop Habitat at Homebase will be rewarded with Nectar points, but those who shop in Habitat’s remaining London stores or online at the brand’s site will not enjoy similar benefits.

This is a dreadful lack of consistency for retailers of this stature, worsened by the fact that Homebase’s instore discounting strategy is not aligned with that offered in the HRG’s own Habitat stores, offering different promotional pricing and percentage discounts in both stores at the same time. Shouldn’t these be the same? In this, the Home Retail Group appears to be saying to its customers that it expects them to know the difference in prices between both companies, and to check the offer prices in both stores when considering where to shop?  This is a disgraceful way to treat customers and I believe, damages trust in the brand.

Perhaps even worse is the service offer that exists between the different retail channels under which Habitat now trades. Customers who place a special order for Habitat products that are normally offered in Homebase but are not stocked instore, will only be able to get a refund if the product is faulty. Similarly, customer orders placed in a Homebase can take up to two weeks to arrive (not including made to order items). Neither of these policies being helpful when planning to update or decorate rooms when there are time pressures and uncertainties to factor in. And, when brands such as John Lewis offer a seven day delivery on its entire furniture collection, this is clearly a major service deficiency that Homebase must seek to improve and make more efficient, if it seriously expects customers to shop Habitat here.

So it would seem that the only way to experience Habitat in its true (or former) form is to go to Habitat in London, not Homebase. Or, travel to its sister stores in France, Germany or Spain where the brand can still be enjoyed in its former glory (owned by separate management).

There will be many people who are just pleased to be able to shop these products in their local area again – albeit in a retail park, amongst the general decoration, lighting and plumbing departments. They’ll perhaps forgive these important shortcomings in brand delivery, but for me this certainly isn’t the case.

I find it a dismal shopping experience, one that makes little sense, and is thoroughly hard work. The uninspiring layout, poor customer services, promotional pricing and returns policies are at best inconsistent with the few remaining UK Habitat stores and the online brand. In my opinion, whether a customer shops a brand from place a or b, the same retail standards and policies should apply. A good retail brand becomes successful by having a clear and distinctive vision and proposition, consistency of delivery and effective management to bring it together for the customer, not simply a crude attempt to quickly open a lot of ineffective retail space.

The Habitat brand has a proud heritage and iconic status on the UK high street, yet for me Homebase has made a poor start in the short time it has stewarded its future. Habitat was seen as a standard bearer in product design and store experience. Rarely applauded for its customer service, but here too, I believe that Homebase has made an at best, average position, considerably worse.

This should have been the reason for everyone that can no longer shop Habitat in their back gardens to go to Homebase – with Nectar points to boot, but for me this is a great opportunity missed. I’ll be heading to Paris or Koln for my next Habitat fix, and I hope the Homebase team do the same, if only to consider how to get the brand back on track in their stores.

Karl McKeever is brand director of VM and instore brand delivery consultancy, Visual Thinking. www.visualthinking.co.uk

Read the original article in the November edition of Cabinet Maker magazine.