Furniture chain Dwell achieved record sales last month at a time when most retailers in the sector are struggling. Founder Aamir Ahmed tells Nicola Harrison how he does it.

Sitting on a rather stylish chaise longue he designed himself, Aamir Ahmed, managing director and founder of furniture chain Dwell, looks around his plush Oxford Street head office and winces as he recalls the company’s previous HQ. Located in the middle of an industrial estate in Merton, the roof leaked, the carpets were mouldy and the power often cut out.

Ahmed set up Dwell in 2003 and it has come a long way from its modest start. The furniture chain recorded its best sales to date last month –£2 million across its stores, web site and mail order catalogue. Not bad for a youngster in a market that seems to be falling apart at the seams at the moment, with furniture retailers such as ScS, Ilva and Floors-2-Go all hitting the buffers this year.

Ahmed himself has come a long way too, having experienced his fair share of ups and downs. Having trained in computer sciences, the London-born entrepreneur turned his hand to retail in the 1990s and is now designing his own products. “I never thought I’d take this route,” admits Ahmed. “But I always knew I wanted to run my own business.”

His first foray into retail was via a mail order catalogue business called Ocean. Inspired by his time spent as a strategy manager for Laura Ashley in the US, Ahmed saw a gap in the market for a high-quality mail order catalogue in the UK. Only the gap did not quite materialise. After a hard-fought battle to keep going – including drafting in his friends to hand-deliver 10,000 catalogues, remortgaging his house and “staying in every night for three years” to take calls from customers – he ended up selling it.

“It was devastatingly depressing. A complete disaster,” says Ahmed. But, after a year off spent renovating a house in a forest outside Barcelona, he experienced a moment of clarity and hatched a plan. Inviting his old team to the house, he explained that he wanted to start again. “They thought I was mad, but I managed to convince them we had a place in the market,” recalls Ahmed.

“There’s not much choice in furniture retail; there aren’t many aspirational brands like you get in fashion, like Hobbs or White Stuff. With furniture, you get Ikea at one end and a ridiculously expensive Italian boutique at the other. We wanted to be interesting, aspirational and yet affordable.”
And Dwell is certainly interesting. Despite Ahmed claiming he can’t draw, he, along with other senior management, comes up with 90 per cent of the design ideas for the furniture. “Coming from a non-design background helped us. We don’t pick wacky designs, but stuff that people want to show off at dinner parties. It’s unusual and distinctive and nothing like the furniture found in mass-market furniture sheds.”

Multichannel strategy

According to Ahmed, consumers are less patient than they used to be, so he set out to make shopping easy. That meant having a multichannel offer – 60 per cent of Dwell’s sales are made through the web site and mail order, with the other 40 per cent coming from stores.

The transactional web site houses every product, and all prices are the same as those in store. “Few retailers are quite as integrated or technologically advanced as we are,” claims Ahmed, who wrote all the systems himself. As if to prove his point, he describes a new delivery function, where customers place an order and then get a text message asking which day they want the item delivered on. “We’re lucky as we are a new company and can design the business around the customer, whereas older businesses are stuck with old systems,” he says.

The strategy appears to be paying off. As well as achieving record sales, Dwell is ploughing ahead with store openings in Richmond, Bristol, Nottingham and Westfield London all before Christmas.

But how does Ahmed find time to relax when he is running a business and designing its products? With difficulty, it seems. He had his first two-week holiday in eight years this year, but spent much of the time thinking up new ideas for Dwell. “This is when I’m at my most creative. I think about the business all the time. I don’t do as much relaxing as I should.” Perhaps not, but at least he is not spending his evenings indoors taking calls from customers any more.

Designs on success

Age: 40
Lives: in Clapham, with his partner
Education: degree in computer sciences, Manchester
University, 1986

Career history

2003: launched Dwell
1995: launched Ocean, which he sold in 2002
1994: strategy manager, Diageo, UK
1991: strategy manager for Laura Ashley, US

1989: group strategy consultant at The Boston Consultancy Group