Relief and defiance dominate mood among staff at surviving Habitat stores
The famous shop in Tottenham Court Road is not one of the many Habitat stores facing closure this weekend. Along with its outlets on King’s Road and Finchley Road in London, it will live on, still selling an eclectic mix of bright kitchenware, modernist chairs and paper lampshades under the same trading name. Staff working there were showing visible signs of relief – especially the young woman behind a till who explained to a new colleague that she had only just been transferred from a doomed Cambridge store.
For the older members of the sales team, news that a large part of the company is to go into administration, with the loss of around 700 jobs nationally, was a shock. “How are we going to trade with just three shops?” asked one, only to be reassured in hushed tones by a younger manager with the words: “Habitat will still be Habitat.”
But what, beyond a nostalgic memory of 1960s modernism, does Habitat mean to anyone these days? Shoppers in the store early to spot sale bargains were loyal, but a little confused about the brand. Some praised its brave modern designs, while others talked fondly of woven rugs and raffia laundry baskets. Responding to a jaunty stack of flowery, Cath Kidston-influenced plates going cheap in the kitchen department, Irene Hutchins, 59, wondered, tellingly: “Retro is coming back, isn’t it?” Over in the furniture department, a couple from Kent said that they were disappointed not to have received their new table and chairs. The delivery company employed by Habitat had failed to bring them to their door due to the sale of the stores to the Home Retail Group, owner of Argos and Homebase.
“It was very annoying, but the people here in the shop have been great,” said Robert Smith, 37, a teacher. “We shop here all the time and I think it’s because, if you buy something here, it lasts a long time. That may have been Habitat’s downfall. People don’t need to come back.” But those looking for high-end household purchases can always shop at Heal’s or Liberty, Smith said, while people with a limited budget now tend to head for Ikea. Ikano, a financial services group that is a sister company of Ikea, owned Habitat from 1992 until it was eventually given away, with a hefty dowry, to its last owner, Hilco.
Staring at the archly named “Hitchcock” shower curtain, priced at £15 and hanging in the basement of the store, it is hard not to wonder who stuck the knife into Habitat. Rather like an episode of the late Peter Falk’s show Columbo, shoppers may think they know the identity of the culprit from the start: fickle fashion. The store that became famous under Sir Terence Conan’s stewardship for selling the middle classes coffee tables that spoke of Scandinavian simplicity has failed to keep up with the tastes of its core customers. “Some of it is too brightly coloured for me. It doesn’t really go with much, that’s the problem,” said Hayley Curran from south London. “It is all right for garden stuff, though.”
“I remember when I was young that it was the only place to get things for your house that looked at all modern,” said Alice Capper, who was buying bedroom furniture for her daughter. “Now I go to lots of places.”
Habitat’s bourgeois, white-collar audience now defines itself differently. Household brands such as Dwell and Zara Home have crowded into the same retail sector with a sharper profile. And while labels such as Cath Kidston or Boden are frequently cited to identify the look of the comfortable British middle classes, Habitat no longer is.
Smith said that it was still possible to buy stylish classics like the chicken brick or a Robin Day chair inside Habitat.
But the management of the chain has been unable to capitalise on the current appetite for 50s and 60s design. While dealers in “shabby chic” vintage furniture are quids in, and the internet trade in original Danish modernist furniture is booming on auction sites such as eBay, Habitat has signally failed to establish itself as the home of good contemporary design.
In the end, the answer to the question “Who stabbed Habitat in the back?” follows the plot, not of an episode of Columbo, but of Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone on the high street, it seems, helped to wield the knife.