MADE.COM, the online furniture retailer co-founded by internet pioneer Brent Hoberman, has chosen Yorkshire to expand its strategy of converging online and offline shopping experiences.
The Notting Hill company is opening a showroom at Redbrick Mill in Batley following the success of its debut in west London.
The move defies the prevailing wisdom in the retail sector with increasing numbers of consumers choosing to shop online.
But Mr Hoberman told the Yorkshire Post: “Showrooms will have a huge part to play with brands physically displaying products that will later be purchased online.
“Retailers will turn their stores into ‘brand cathedrals’ offering a fun and entertaining retail experience.”
He said that new technology will reduce return rates for items bought online as customers will be able to visualise furniture in their homes, or even visualise how clothes fit using augmented reality applications.
Mr Hoberman, who co-founded Lastminute.com in 1998, added that technology will also tighten logistics, with delivery time becoming faster and more convenient. “Vertically integrated businesses like MADE, that control production and distribution, will thrive,” he added.
“While some are concerned with the influence innovation has on the industry, we should be invigorated by the opportunities online presents us to satisfy the brilliantly savvy UK consumer.”
He said the decision to choose West Yorkshire was “a no-brainer” because of its access to customers in both sides of the Pennines.
“On top of that, Yorkshire is hard to ignore. It’s a strong business hub, and we watch regional development with great interest.”
Ning Li, co-founder and chief executive, told the Yorkshire Post that MADE wanted to create an integrated experience for customers.
He described Redbrick as a “lovely space... rather unusual... and a destination rather than a high street”.
Local businessmen led the regeneration of Redbrick at the turn of the century and transformed it into a department store for design-led furniture brands with tenants including Conran, Heal’s, BoConcept and Multiyork.
Alastair Bailey, managing director of Redbrick, said: “MADE has changed the face of furniture retail.
“We believe that this partnership represents the perfect introduction into a new form of retailing where both online and offline combine to provide the consumer with the complete retail experience.”
MADE launched as an online business in 2010 and grew quickly by stripping out expensive middlemen such as agents, importers and high street shops to connect the customer directly with furniture makers.
The company sources furniture from factories in China, Europe, India and increasingly the UK.
MADE opened a showroom next to its head office in Notting Hill last year and found that 25 per cent of visitors completed a sale, a higher conversion rate than the single digits of those visiting the website.
Mr Li said London customers had to register by email before being able to access the store and were unable to complete purchases in the building, contradicting the basic principles of retail. Instead, visitors were encouraged to experiment with products and talk to staff and then make up their own minds about whether to buy online.
Mr Li said the success of the experiment persuaded the company to replicate the idea at other locations, which led him to Redbrick.
“We would like to call them showrooms. They are experimental space. We would not necessarily allow people to purchase from the store or push people to buy from the store.”
Mr Li added that the company would like to open at other locations, but not on high streets.
The 31-year-old grew up in China and studied at one of France’s most prestigious universities before joining an investment bank as an analyst.
A yearning for more freedom and creativity led him to put his skills to entrepreneurial use and Mr Li launched Myfab.com, a successful designer furniture portal.
He met with Mr Hoberman who persuaded him to move to the UK and together with Julien Callede and Chloe Macintosh they launched MADE.
The company has reported 100 per cent year on year growth since its launch and turnover is now said to be in the low tens of millions. It has around 200,000 customers.
MADE launched e-commerce services in France in February and Italy in September.
Fame in the Dotcom boom
Brent Hoberman found fame during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s when he and business partner Martha Lane Fox launched Lastminute.com, the online travel and gift business. It was floated in 2000 and sold to Sabre in 2005 for $1.1bn.
Mr Hoberman invested in MADE and is chairman.
Ning Li, chief executive, told the Yorkshire Post: “He is a very demanding person, constantly challenging us to always think big.
“Running a business day to day we are sometimes more focused to resolve problems in front of us whereas he allows the person to think more long term.”