15 April 2024, 18:51
By Furniture News Jun 12, 2013

Aamir Ahmad - Dwell revisited

In 2009, Furniture News interviewed the founder of Dwell, Aamir Ahmad. As the retailer's demise was announced today, we revisit that story to rediscover the ideals Aamir set out with …

Furniture retailers need to get creative to survive, says Aamir Ahmad. The burgeoning dwell chain is testament to his creativity – the now 19-store multi-channel operation depends on exclusive product, aspirational presentation and accessibility, and is a model that even the smallest independents could learn from.

Since its launch in November 2003, founder and managing director Aamir Ahmad has seen dwell’s physical presence expand rapidly, alongside a lucrative website and mail order operation. In March, its flagship store opened on Tottenham Court Road – a wholly bespoke set-up covering 7500 sq ft of selling space. This was joined by another in Kingston upon Thames in May, and both are progressive takes on the dwell model.

“The new stores are quite different from our existing ones, like Westfield [Shopping Centre],” says Aamir. “We are only just starting to get them right – we’ve got a long way to go!”

It seems to me that dwell is one retail brand that very much knows what it is doing. The past decade has seen it expand steadily, building a design-savvy identity that has struck a chord with a sizeable – and fairly affluent – customer base.

“I don’t want department stores running this sector, it should be independents”

At its heart is the product on offer, a progressive selection of furniture and accessories that pays heed to emerging trends yet also sets its own. Its buying team includes some of the biggest names in sourcing – ex-Harrods, Linleys and Tesco visionaries included – with Aamir continuing to play a large part in defining the range.

“We’ve got a really strong buying team that does all the hard work,” he says, “but in my business, product selection is the one thing I never want to abdicate. I come up with most of the initial ideas and concepts on the furniture side, and get the final sign-off. I am involved in all areas of dwell, but I would say my favourite area is product – it’s what the business is all about.”

Aamir knows that product focus is critical when courting the design-aware, and goes to great pains to ensure the respect and loyalty of his customers. In the fast-evolving world of design, remaining contemporary demands constant re-evaluation – whether this means injecting excitement into displays using the latest accessories, launching new items as quickly as possible, or mercilessly culling poorly-performing models.

“Our customers definitely know their mind – they know what they like, and what they don’t,” says Aamir. “They are very design aware, and usually very affluent. They watch Grand Designs and the other renovation programmes. We are always surprised by how design-aware they are.

“What we are trying to do is provide people with really aspirational designs, as contemporary as possible, and exclusive – fashionable, but at an affordable price. That’s the challenge we have to rise to – providing something new every month.”

“That’s what being an entrepreneur is about – rising to the challenges”

Aamir notes that boasting unique product is perhaps the most important element of retail today. Visiting shows, hotels, installations – even other retailers ­– gives retailers the chance to absorb and be inspired by the latest international trends, but it is a luxury that is outside the reach of most. However, as Aamir sees it, this lack of vision extends to the trade as a whole, and, compared with the fashion market and the strength of diversity present in US furniture retail, it’s missing a trick.

“The interesting thing with the furniture market is there aren’t very many recognisable brands,” he says. “The market is still very fragmented. Even IKEA only has around a 7% share – there’s lots of small players. I hate to say this, but I think it’s pretty boring, especially compared to the fashion market. There aren’t many equivalents in the furniture industry that have a strong presence.

“It’s such a competitive market, if you are not adding anything to your market, you aren’t going anywhere – particularly with the internet present, where people will undercut you right away. Small independents need to put their own creativity into a product to get some point of differentiation. In furniture, we’ve all been a bit slow and reluctant to develop our own stuff.”

Hence the creation of dwell, a design-led business inspired by US models, purpose-built to fill a gap in the market, with an offering that is 90% exclusive and designed in-house. Offering a point of difference in the form of completely unique product might be outside of the ability of many independents, but they can take a leaf out of dwell’s approach to displaying product.

Sumptuous roomsets are synonymous with dwell – it is a leader in creating inspirational, aspirational settings, as a visit to any of its stores will prove. As well as improving the in-store aesthetic, good displays create upselling opportunities and add value to even the lowliest accessory.

Says Aamir: “We are trying to create a particular look for people, not just sell individual pieces. Last season, we created Fashionista – a cutting-edge style that was picked up by the press and proved hugely popular.

“The last thing we need is for consumers to be taxed back into a recession”

“It’s quite difficult to do looks and roomsets, but much of it is about trying to avoid displaying a sea of furniture. I admit that, in the past, our larger stores have sometimes tended to look like this – almost too much to take in at a glance.

“In the Tottenham Court Road store we’ve divided the rooms up a lot more. Each look has a different slant, be it easy, bright, strong … by delineating the space well and making sure everything sits together properly, we are giving people a much clearer idea of how they can plan their houses. We also present the dining/bedroom/lounge co-ordination – if you live in a smaller flat, it can all be part of one look.

“All of this helps customers be a bit more creative. In our best room sets, people will sit down and imagine it in their own house. Seeing them do this gives me a great feeling! They won’t necessarily copy the whole thing, but most people are inspired by the little touches at least.”

After all, these days it seems that everyone’s an interior designer at heart. dwell’s achievement has been recognising and encouraging this movement – and encouraging amateur creativity through its design for dwell competition, which, says Aamir, has revealed the UK’s depth of passion for interiors and the home.

Keeping in touch with this zeitgeist is an ongoing process, requiring a constant discourse with the brand’s faithful. Social media comes into its own at this point, but it’s an area that dwell, Aamir admits, has been slow to capitalise upon.

This is surprising, as dwell’s internet retail channel, which accounts for around 30% of its sales, is highly evolved, in part thanks to Aamir’s background in computer programming.

“We started multi-channel from day one. To get it working properly, we wrote all of our own IT systems – what was out there at the time didn’t really deliver for modern retail needs. We programmed the whole thing – if you know what you’re doing, it’s not too hard!”

Not too hard if you possess a first-class degree in computer studies, four full-time developers and a willingness to invest over £1m, perhaps – but going online is a hurdle Aamir is adamant retailers must overcome, albeit on a more basic level.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to take the plunge,” he says, “and take some time and effort to get it sorted out. “You may not be sure about the immediate rewards, or shy away from the new skills that need to be learned, but that’s what being an entrepreneur is about – rising to the challenges.

“Our consumers use the internet, and demand that their retailers use it. Whatever you think of the medium, the demand for multi-channel comes from consumers, and, especially in our sector, it’s a vital part of the mix. When it works, it works well.

“The notion of processing online orders can terrify retailers, but it’s the reality of the situation – particularly for those potential buyers planning their houses at home, from their laptops. Even in dwell stores, people are now using their iPhones to check what else we have in stock.”

Despite its hesitant start, dwell’s social media has been quickly embraced, and Aamir is keen to further explore its potential. However, it does reflect a more cautious attitude to progress than I expected from dwell – a strong, successful brand that has every right to be expanding much faster.

John Lewis has raised the stakes in terms of store roll-out, and, while Aamir has the utmost respect for the retailer’s philosophy and approach, he has reservations about what it means for the furniture trade in general.

He says: “I think John Lewis have showed that if you are a little bit bold, you can do well. It does make me feel that I don’t want department stores running this sector – it should be the independents. But I think that independent stores aren’t strong enough at the moment, and can do so much more.

“In terms of dwell’s expansion, when it comes to growth it’s difficult to know how quickly to roll out new stores. It’s very tough at the moment. You’ve got to balance risk and growth. You can’t stand still – to hibernate your way through the recession is the wrong thing to do – but you can’t go too crazy.

“At the beginning of last year, I regret a little that we were too conservative, and took our foot off the pedal. We’ve actually been doing better since we put the pressure back on, but we’ve been doing it at our own pace.”

Of course, it’s often factors outside of a retailer’s control that set this pace. By the time you read this, a new Budget will have been announced, and every retailer will be considering how it affects their business.

“It feels almost like there’s a little bit of recovery happening,” says Aamir, “but right now everyone’s taking a bit of a pause, waiting for the taxes. I think that if we carry on as we are we’ll be okay.

“I’m not that worried about VAT going up one or two per cent – I’m much more interested in interest/tax hikes that could create a negative consumer sentiment and stop people spending. The last thing we need is for consumers to be taxed back into a recession.

“Every retailer has been challenged by consumers suddenly re-evaluating what their spending priorities are. Most of them have money, but are much more careful with it. They may wait for offers, or for something new and exciting.

“As retailers, we start every day with a slight paranoia – that people could stop buying furniture tomorrow. To a certain extent, that’s a little of what they are doing – people put off purchases and everything grinds to a halt. Consumers need something positive, some excitement in their lives, to prompt them to spend again.”

While some factors are beyond Aamir Ahmad’s control, constantly adding value and presence to his empire is not. His business has gradually become a leading light in furniture retail, and, while it’s difficult to predict what Aamir’s next move will be, it’s a fair bet it will see dwell’s star further on the ascendant.

While asserting a refreshing degree of fellowship with the UK’s independent stores, Aamir sets out a range of best practice approaches that would turn most stores into upmarket design havens, combining creativity, drive and customer empathy. Make buying easy, and offer a million points of difference – it's the dwell direction.

Career digest

Education: BSc Computer Science (1st class Hons), Manchester University

1989: Group strategy consultant, The Boston Consultancy Group. Consequent work for Laura Ashley provides Aamir with first retail experience. Adterwards, worked as strategy manager at Diageo

1995: Launched Ocean, a catalogue-only company (sold 2002)

2003: Launched dwell as a multi-channel furniture business with a catalogue, website and retail store. Aamir says: “After selling venture number one, I took a year off and spent time mulling over what I could do better second time round. I knew it had to be design-led furniture again, as there was still a huge gap in the market. I got some of my old team together and told them I wanted to start again. Their reaction was: “You are crazy … okay, let’s go for it!”

© 2013 - 2024 Gearing Media Group Ltd. All Rights Reserved.