Saturday, 25 June 2011

Habitat loss

In its heyday what Habitat offered and was new was ‘design’. It had to be affordable to the youngish people who were anxious to buy it but cheapness was not the main attraction, and, a bit later, it offered an upward pathway to more expensive versions of the same thing, through the Conran Shop and Heals.

That particular historical moment passed. ‘Design’ became more widely and diffusely available; the market became rather more affluent; the Conran ‘style’ no longer singly characterised a particular social aspiration. You could see a dilution in the Conran Shop, but Habitat became trapped in its old model, with no clear way out or forward, and passed on to become a kind of sub-Next or Laura Ashley, unaware of its identity or place in the market (‘Next’ of course being a deliberately chosen name).

Some few years on, the new flagships in the consumer retail market are IKEA, TopShop, Primark, answering to a new need, in harder times, for permanent cheapness. ‘Design’ is important to them all, even essential to some, but ‘design’ has become a commodity, something we simply expect to be there in what we buy, and chose this or that version of. It is no longer the new dawn that Conran offered with Habitat. Cheapness is now the essential oxygen and, at least with the fashion shops, the relationship with ‘design’ has become predatory, hijacking the style of the rich for the rest of us – quite different from the old Habitat-Conran Shop ladder. The survivor and inheritor of Habitat is, I suppose, Benchmark, which, thriving though it apparently is, thrives in something of a niche.

There was no good reason to think the Kamprad family could breathe new life into Habitat when they were trying to turn it into something that was neither IKEA, their great current success, nor the original Habitat, Conran’s old success. The demise of Habitat was perhaps symbolised when they modified its logo to put a heart inside the house instead of the old table and chairs (oddly reminiscent of Wall's icecream).

Alongside the IKEA, TopShop, Primark constellation in the modern retail sky, one can faintly discern that dimly glowing star Argos, survivor of a far distant galaxy, once known as Green Shield Stamps, predating the days even of Conran, and now certainly not shining with ‘design’ brightness but equally certainly belonging in the low-price zodiac. It is this Argos that is the new owner of Habitat – the brand, the website, the marketing operation, if not of the shops, whose premises will probably swell the ranks of charity shops and pound stores.