21 July 2024, 23:20
By Furniture News Oct 11, 2019

Hamish Mansbridge talks Heal's

What does it take to thrive in today’s retail climate? Despite its 209-year history and world-class flagship, even Heal’s has struggled to turn a profit in recent years – but no longer. CEO Hamish Mansbridge tells Paul Farley about the new lines, digital directions and in-store theatre behind the iconic brand’s turnaround, plus the lines it will never cross …

I meet Hamish at Fitzrovia’s Mortimer House, just a short walk from the Tottenham Court Road store. Here, Heal’s is unveiling its AW19 collections: Modern Nostalgia (contrasting colour palettes, warm materials and bold patterns); and Deco Moderne (Art Deco-inspired, curvy, richly accented).

Encompassing upholstery, cabinet, lighting and accessories, the new designs are at once sumptuous, refined, and daring. Take the sofas – like Fitzrovia, a thoroughly fresh take on the traditional Chesterfield, or Bloomsbury, a compact, 1930s-style statement piece.

Sixty years after his death, Ambrose Heal’s famous maxim, ‘If in doubt, innovate’, continues to guide the brand’s direction. And his design principles, drawn from the Arts and Crafts, Art Deco and Modernism movements, are never far away. It may be over two centuries old, but Heal’s is very much alive and kicking, and can blend the traditional and the modern like no other.

“Everything comes down to product,” states Hamish. “Design is the absolute key attribute of everything we do – there has to be that credibility to it. We’re not going to sell things that are boring.”

With a philosophy like that, there’s never a dull moment. Heal’s hasn’t made a Chesterfield in years, Bloomsbury is quite dissimilar to the established lines, and Rocca is the first extendable ceramic-topped table the company’s ever done.

“To some extent, we take risks with everything we do,” says Hamish. “But it’s definitely more pronounced this season. For one thing, I’d never plan to launch five new sofas in one go!”

So, how do the latest additions to the portfolio align with the retailer’s wider strategy? “There’s no prescriptive direction,” Hamish shrugs. “Just as much free rein for our designers and buyers as possible. They’re working from a blank piece of paper.”

It’s a refreshingly democratic approach to product sourcing and development, and demonstrates immense faith in the team’s creative vision.

And, risky or not, it appears to be paying off. After some years in the wilderness, the retailer’s finances have returned to good health – revenues were up +12% (to £29.7m) in 2017-18, and Hamish is confident that the future is bright.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he says, “and it’s taken lots of little changes to achieve it. When I joined in September 2015, I was never going to completely change what Heal’s was doing – but they had fallen into some bad practices. I had to make people understand that it needed to be a proper business, not a vanity project, and this meant doing things more commercially – yet remaining mindful of retaining the brand’s core values.” 

It was a time of significant (but necessary) transformation. Poorly performing product was removed. Better relationships with suppliers were forged, and various moves were made to reduce costs – most visibly, store closures.

Today, Heal’s operates though six shops. The largest of these is its iconic flagship on Tottenham Court Road, which comprises 42,000 sqft of retail space over three floors. “It’s jolly expensive to operate, but we’d never be without it,” says Hamish. “We’re the road’s anchor tenant!”

Heal’s at 196 Tottenham Court Road

Alongside stores in Kingston upon Thames, Brighton and West Yorkshire (Redbrick Mill), Heal’s now operates through two smaller-format shops, in Birmingham’s Mailbox and Westfield London. The hope is that these will broaden the brand’s reach, but Hamish admits that it is not yet clear how well they work, and that Heal’s is unlikely to open any more in the immediate future.

Indeed, the brand’s future will hinge on its online channels, says Hamish, who has already described Heal’s as a “digitally connected brand with showrooms”.

“Online now accounts for 40% of our business,” he explains. “Of course, our customers use the stores too – rudimentary analysis shows relatively high incidence of people shopping in both directions – but it absolutely looks like the digital-first model is the future.”

This ethos has led Heal’s to increasingly divert its marketing spend – one third, and now two – along digital channels. And although this remains his long-term strategy, Hamish admits that backing away from traditional media has probably made the brand less visible to its traditional audience. Consequently, he plans to somewhat redress this balance, possibly employing some of the brand’s classic ad campaigns along the way.

And why not? Few brands have such a rich history, and despite any uncertainties the future holds, Heal’s is never remiss in acknowledging its roots. This summer alone, it celebrated 100 years of Homes & Gardens magazine (Heal’s advertised in the very first issue), while a lobby display marked 100 years of the Bauhaus design school.

Such endurance resonates with today’s consumer, and an ethos of longevity permeates the retailer’s entire portfolio. The daring Ambrose Heal was also proud of his ability to deliver well-crafted products that would stand the test of time, a message that’s reflected in the business’ branding and lifetime guarantees. 

It’s also particularly relevant today, as the clamour around sustainable manufacture and recycling hits fever pitch – what better time for a brand that’s always made furniture to last?

“Although our more mature customers want the quality they’ve always had, when I joined Heal’s it felt like we lived in a more throwaway society,” says Hamish. “Now it feels like that conscience is coming back again, particularly at the younger end of the spectrum. 

“A lot of our product is made in the UK and Europe, our plastic bags are biodegradable (even if people still ask for paper!), and the fact we know our furniture will be with our customers 10 or 20 years’ longer than most is great.

“But sustainability is a double-edged sword. I’m always hearing people say that their grandma has a lovely Heal’s cabinet which they’ll inherit in the future, so they don’t need to buy one today. Perhaps we do it too well!”

Hamish points to a rug at our feet that’s made from recycled plastic bottles. “Traction on recycled product will grow,” he says. “But it shouldn’t take green credentials to sell our products – beauty and design should lead, with sustainable elements underneath it all.”

In that respect, he’s confident that Heal’s will always deliver. “I think we do design and quality better than anyone else,” he states. “If people tell me they can buy something cheaper from somewhere else, I tell them to go and buy it – we’re never going to compete on price.

“And that’s part of the reason our stores are so important. They enable shoppers to compare what we do with our competitors, so they can see the quality for themselves.”

Yet even Heal’s, whose historic flagship ranks among the world’s most inspiring retail destinations, has to work hard to drive footfall. “I’m always astonished when furniture stores don’t make the most of the theatre and hospitality that should naturally accompany the product,” says Hamish.

“That’s why we take retail theatre so seriously. We’ve got to create an increasingly more experiential space to get people coming in and buying.” He points to the success of the Heal’s Brunel apartment, a new installation which simulates a modern living environment around its popular Brunel collection, designed by Rob Scarlett. “It’s interactive, and focused on a range which, for many, is the stepping stone into our brand,” explains Hamish. “The apartment brings everything together.”

The Heal’s Brunel apartment at Tottenham Court Road

Then there’s the sheer number of colourful concessions which call the Tottenham Court Road store home. These range from newcomer Amura (“young and fun”), through the eccentric Timothy Oulton (“some customers think it’s a slightly odd juxtaposition, but they’re generally happy to see something different – the brand absolutely owns that space”), to the long-standing Vitra (“one of my most treasured partnerships – and actually a hybrid model, rather than a concession”). 

If variety is the spice of life, the new AW19 collections are poised to bring even greater diversity and character to Heal’s.

But you can guarantee it won’t stop there. It’s taken considerable effort and creativity to get this business back on track, and momentum must be maintained. By the time you read this, Heal’s will doubtless look a little different, as more of that pioneering spirit comes to life.

“Heal’s has only had 14 leaders in its history,” says Hamish. “I feel a lot of pride … and responsibility. It’s a tough sector.” 

But Heal’s is a survivor. And you don’t survive without a little optimism. 

“Here in London, it’s going to be great for us when Crossrail opens. More generally, sorting out Brexit would make a big difference to people’s confidence, and we’d see growth in many sectors. It depends on who gets into power, but there’s a good chance the housing market could pick up.

“If they take the brakes off, I think there’s a big future ahead of us.”

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