The ability to shape-shift between online and offline will be the mark of the retailer that knows which way the future lies. Heal’s is a good example.
“We want to be an ecommerce business with showrooms,” said Hamish Mansbridge, chief executive at Heal’s, one of Tottenham Court Road’s best-known furniture and lighting retailers.
This is a business that has been around since 1810, claims to have been the first to introduce this country to mattresses that were not filled with straw and which specialises in ‘statement pieces’ for the home.
This might lead you to conclude that it is a quaint but out-of-time emporium whose days are numbered and which will soon be a memory.
Yet while it has just six stores, with the central London branch accounting for the overwhelming proportion of its turnover, its online business is advancing by leaps and bounds (or maybe by clicks and collects).
It is also a good instance of the current trend that sees online retailers opting to open physical stores in reverse.
Online and off
Mansbridge is clear that with most shopping missions beginning online (and possibly finishing there), having a very large property on one of the capital’s major thoroughfares is about catering to new shopping habits.
It is worth noting that the same retailer has just opened a store in Birmingham’s revamped Mailbox and it happens to be next door to another new arrival, Made.com.
Although the two are rivals and come at retail from polar positions, the fact that they are next door to each other is symptomatic of the direction of travel for online and terrestrial retailers.
The real point perhaps is that Heal’s is in a position to do this because it is a very modest affair in terms of store numbers and punches way above its weight as far as reputation is concerned.
This is the sort of thing that retailers with large estates can only look at and envy.
The ability to shape-shift from online to offline and back again is posited on not having an unwieldy store portfolio where the best that can normally be seen are a few digital mirrors where shoppers can share their triumphs on social media.
Yet perhaps there are still lessons to be learned. The majority of retailers with hundreds of outlets have at least one branch that is designated a ‘flagship’.
This should be the one that can morph from shop to showroom and back again as required, and a halo effect should be observed more generally across the chain in consequence.