Heal’s is arguably the oldest existing furniture retailer in the UK, but it is investing in very modern processes to help secure its future as a department store trader of high-end homewares.
Founded in 1810 as a feather & mattress business, the firm developed into selling furniture in the years that followed and was once part of Terence Conran’s Storehouse group of businesses in the 1980s.
Now having been under the ownership of Fortnum & Mason’s parent company Wittington Investments, which is part of Associated British Foods, for the last decade, the six-store retailer is aiming for growth through multichannel development and by keeping up with the latest fashion trends.
In recent years designers such as Orla Kiely have been brought on board to help develop homeware ranges with a difference and take the business back to its design roots, and rising stars such the aforementioned Irish creative have helped give Heal’s a distinguishing edge in the market.
And just last week the company launched its first mobile commerce website, adding to its burgeoning online operation which now accounts for 22 per cent of total annual sales, and this new platform for trading will be utilised further in the coming year.
Andrea Warden, who joined as CEO of the business in 2004, has gradually overseen the development of Heal’s to the modern operation it now is, and she sees the majority of the company’s growth coming from web development and social commerce in the imminent future.
“You would think that for a company like us Twitter and the like wouldn’t be relevant but we are doing lots of things in terms of trends, which helps drive followers,” she explained to Retail Gazette.
“For me, it is about utilising social media and other channels. We’re not just a shop that sells furniture, we’re interested in design and innovation and things in a bigger way.”
Like the majority of retailers, Warden also believes that m-commerce is going to be “huge” in the years ahead, and she expects mobile and tablet devices to become increasingly important to her company’s overall offer.
Already 12 per cent of people who access the Heal’s website do so via one of these devices, and the CEO “can only see that quantum leaping” following the recent launch of the fully transactional m-commerce platform.
But while online and multichannel development remains a key focus for Heal’s, stores have not been neglected.
In-store kiosks have been introduced, including at its 42,000 sq ft flagship on London’s Tottenham Court Road, providing sales assistants with another opportunity to ensure customers do not leave Heal’s without having made a purchase.
This linking together of all retail channels is hugely important to any retail company; be it for boosting sales, increasing brand presence or, evidently, preventing divisions forming within an individual organisation.
Warden said: “Initially we had stores saying that ‘we do all the work and then the online rob the sale’, but now we spend a lot of time saying that it can work just the same – if not better – the other way round.”
Commenting on the usefulness of in-store kiosks, which some analysts cannot yet fully understand, she added: “Obviously I would like people to clinch a sale there and then rather than send people home in the hope they will make a purchase online later.”
Warden also has an interesting take on what makes an ideal property location for homewares retailers, and she has not ruled out adding to the six UK stores currently operated by the company in London, Guildford, Brighton, Kingston and Redbrick Mill.
The latter is situated in an old mill in West Yorkshire, and the CEO believes the design could provide a blueprint for other furniture & furnishings specialists looking to maximise sales.
“Redbrick Mill just outside of Yorkshire is a whole host of furniture retailers all under one roof in an old cotton mill, she explained.
“It’s a great location, full of restaurants, garden centres and all kinds of stuff. Lots of brands all under one roof – it’s an interesting retail operation.
“I would love there to be lots more of these around the country. Rather than it being an unfriendly out-of-town, not very nice park, it is a great building, full of great furniture and homewares brands.
“It’s for people who primarily want to shop for furniture but who want a relaxed and enjoyable day out at the same time.”
Perhaps with the homewares sector struggling in the face of the economic slowdown, proved by the recent administration of Heal’s former sister company Habitat and fellow furniture trader Lombok, there is an argument that those operating in this area of retail need to help each other out more.
Warden revealed that she does not expect huge growth to come from furniture at least until the middle of next year, and that reflects the majority of opinions emanating from the sector at present.
In fact, the Heal’s boss is concerned that heavy discounting, much of which is well-documented in the grocery sector, but which takes place in furniture retailing too, is changing the way consumers feel about shopping altogether.
She warned: “If retailers keep going on promotion it’s not good for the long term, because original prices will go up.
“It could be misleading and trust could disappear. Firstly, customers are going to think they should always get a discount and secondly, what is the real price? It’s confusing times for today’s very intelligent shopper.”
Heal’s itself has not made a profit in the six years the existing CEO has been at the helm, but she has reduced losses every year during her tenure, having inherited an operation that was losing between £8-9 million per annum.
But for the VAT increase in January at the start of 2011, the business would probably have moved into the black at the end of its 2010-11 financial year, according to Warden, but the decision by the government to raise the tax to 20 per cent appears to have had a negative impact on consumer confidence and retail as a whole.
Britain’s nation of shopkeepers are a positive group though and, despite the economic dark clouds drifting over 2012, so many of the businesses this publication speaks to on a daily basis often identify rays of sunshine that improve the forecast for the year ahead.
Warden and Heal’s are no different, and they expect to continue to see significant levels of buying activity from sunny expat communities in countries such as Italy and France, as well as higher society on UK shores.
“It’s a tough market and you have to cut your cloth accordingly. Newness is still important and you have to have reasons for people to want to buy things – and if anything we’re developing more new product at the aspirational end,” Warden explained.
“You’ve still got to tap into where people are spending. People are perhaps reining in expenditure at our opening price points, but they are still spending at the top end.
“There are consumers after ‘I love it, I have to have it’ products - these are the people who are still spending at the moment.”
A dedication to design and a commitment to embracing new technology is helping ensure Heal’s stays fashionable in these consumers’ eyes.