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Is worthiness still worth anything? – Habitat falls

It has been a bumper week for administrators, and a dismal week for retailers.

On Tuesday, Life & Style, which emerged from the ashes of Ethel Austin, called in RSM Tenon, who immediately closed 22 stores, and is now in the traditional “talks with a number of parties” process.

On Thursday, Homeform, which owns the Moben, Dolphin and Sharps brands, failed in a particularly swift and ugly manner.

And today, the Habitat UK  IP/brand, three London stores and the website have been acquired by Home Retail Group (Argos/Homebase).  Habitat the chain is dead, and it’s hard to name a potential buyer for any package of in-town/big box furniture stores .  As the Prime Minister’s special retail envoy tweeted: “Quelle horreur. One of our last brilliant British retailers Habitat has gone into administration. Part being bought by Homebase! OMG!”

The weekend papers will be full of it, because Habitat is a defining brand for the baby boomers.  Created by Terence Conran to sell the furniture and homewares that stodgier chains wouldn’t stock, it was as much a part of the swinging sixties as Quant or Bailey; and like them, it survived the decade and settled down, remaining essential for as long as Conran was involved.  Ikea probably killed it twice – first, as steamroller competition, selling clean Scandinavian design at knock-down prices, and then as a semi-detached brand in Kamprad family ownership.  You can read the obituaries tomorrow.

I got to thinking about “worthiness” in retail.  There may be a better word for this (“worthy” has overtones of Presbyterian dourness), but I’m thinking of retailers – often driven by a singular vision – who seek to create a successful business through building a better world.  Conran has always been utterly committed to good design, and it’s a pity that he has had to settle at the top end of the market (although without his evangelism, Ikea may never have taken off and we’d still be buying furniture from Maples).

Plenty of retailers do good works – they will contribute to environmental causes, and support education, sport or the arts.  But it seems that few now seek to improve the world and lift their customers’ understanding through everyday commerce.

Mothercare introduced good design to the nursery, and treated expectant and new mothers as human beings, helping to change society’s approach to babies and young children.  Early Learning had a wholesome, Scandinavian flavour summed up by the company’s name and a belief in the interdependence of learning and play.  Both brands are now under the Mothercare umbrella, of course, and are successfully trading across the world, but inevitably that 60s/70s new-world zest has faded.

Of course, I have to mention bookshops – Tim Waterstone wanted to get literary fiction into the hands of every reader, and imprints like Picador, Black Swan and 4th Estate flourished as a result.  Borders actively increased the size of the children’s book market – our children’s specialists had a missionary zeal.  And Ottakars created shops as locally focused as any chain could ever be.

And in terms of a broader good, think of Sainsbury’s long commitment to good architecture and design, or Marks & Spencer’s concentration on British suppliers.  Both are strong, socially conscious retailers, but those elements have now faded from their corporate characters.

All of these companies existed to do business – their objective was to turn a profit and secure their future growth.  The “worthy” benefits helped to define their brands, and position them in customers’ consciousness.  However, consumer priorities change.  Price – and specifically, the ability to easily make price comparisons – has forced all retailers to compete more robustly on value and availability, and – to some extent – damn the fripperies.  Worthiness no longer works for big mass-market chains.

Except in one towering case, of course.  John Lewis Partnership, middle England’s favourite department stores and supermarkets, are as honestly, committedly worthy as any of the companies I’ve cited above.  Perhaps John Lewis’s move to centre stage has whipped out the worthy carpet from under other retailer’s feet, but they are the good guys against whom everyone else is measured – they are strong commercially, and their unique ownership structure underlines their “wholesomeness”.  Retail Week has published its annual Power List, and for the first time it doesn’t have a Tesco boss at #1 – JLP’s Charlie Mayfield is now on pole.

And for all those Habitat customers, who want the best for their kitchens and lounges, who want something more than Ikea… there’s only one place to go now:

Photos: Habitat – http://www.edu.lolc.co.uk; Mothercare – advertisingarchives.captureweb.co.uk; Sainsbury – modernarchitecturelondon.com; John Lewis – Estates Gazette

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