Can Habitat be the high street's comeback kid?

Habitat has new owners and is about to open its first regional stand-alone store in Leeds. So does this spell a renaissance for the iconic brand? Sharon Dale reports.

The interior of the new Habitat store in Moortown

Sir Terence Conran opened the first Habitat on the Fulham Road in 1964 amid a great deal of fanfare and absolutely no competition. The iconic brand introduced Brits to the chicken brick, the duvet, beanbags and Le Corbusier chairs and sparked an interiors revolution that saw a generation shun traditional post-war décor for a daring, contemporary style.

It was a true pioneer but now it is middle-aged and faces stiff competition from an army of rivals and wannabes in a crowded homeware market. It didn’t help that the Home Retail Group closed all the remaining Habitat regional stores after taking over in 2011. Fans were upset and underwhelmed with the Habitat sections that the Group integrated into some of its Homebase outlets.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This year, however, could herald a renaissance for the 60s superstar thanks to new owners and a fresh approach that includes opening its first regional stand-alone Habitat store in Leeds. Sainsbury’s acquired Home Retail Group, which includes Habitat and Argos, in a £1.4bn deal four months ago and it has wasted no time trialling a new retail strategy. There will be Mini Habitats within six Sainsbury’s supermarkets while Leeds will have a small stand-alone store next to Sainsbury’s on the retail park at Moortown.

“It is an exciting time as it’s the first stand-alone store we have opened for a long time and if it there is enough customer demand to support it, we may look at opening more,” says Habitat MD Claire Askem, who has worked hard to rebuild the brand.

The slimmed down “Mini” shops will carry 600 of Habitat’s 4,500 products. However, staff will encourage customers to browse the full range online via integrated digital screens and in-store iPads.

Half of all Habitat sales are now online and this changing retail landscape means that there will be no return to its heyday when there was a large store in almost every city and large town. High rents and reduced footfall make it a financial non-starter, apart from the three branches in London.

“Shopping habits have changed. It’s all about online and convenient shopping journeys, which is why we think a stand-alone store on a busy retail park in Moortown could work for us. Shoppers still like to touch and feel products, which is why we are trialling these Mini Habitats,” says Claire, who believes that the store within a store tie-in with Sainsbury’s is a much better fit for the brand than Homebase ever was.

“It’s always a challenge but we share a similar ethos in terms of offering really good customer service and being passionate about our products. We will benefit from the footfall in their stores, but Habitat will have its own space, its own staff, its own visual merchandisers and its own tills.”

It will also retain its respected in-house design team headed by creative director Polly Dickens while embarking on a series of collaborations. The first this year is with fashion designer Henry Holland whose range will launch in March. It is described as a “bright mix of bohemian florals, slogans and punchy ginhgams transposed on to velvets, wools and cottons via print, embroidery and patchwork”.

“We like to collaborate with people who can offer something different and it is something we plan to do more of. Henry Holland is a fashion designer but his work is fun and he has pushed our boundaries,” says Claire, who reveals that Habitat’s best sellers at the moment include the Hendricks sofa in orange velvet priced at £1,200 and a selection of colourful cushions at £12 each. The price points are as Sir Terence Conran always intended – a mix of aspirational and affordable.

At the launch of Habitat in Leeds on January 28 and 29 there will be 15 per cent off all products in the store.