In 2000, I hosted an event called ‘Inventing Retail.com’. It was right at the start of the dot-com bubble and the panel was made up of a collection of pioneers in the ecommerce world, including Keith Basnett and Ernst Malmsten, then respectively MD of Zendor.com and CEO of boo.com. Standing room only, it was one of the first events of its kind in London and the debate was controversial, heated and, of course, enlightening on all sides.
One of the panel members was the CEO of Selfridges at the time, Vittorio Radice. Selfridges had no presence online and at the time he said: “People go to work, they go home and they come to their community centre, Selfridges.” Sixteen years later and Selfridges now does have a thriving online business – in 2015, they credited their multichannel offer with helping the group to reach its record operating profit of €217m. I caught up with Vittorio this week to remind him of his statement and ask him what had changed. Laughing, he told me: “Nothing! People still need to get out of their homes. Nothing can replace the atmosphere of being around others.” He continued: “Right now, talking to you, I am leaning against the balustrade of the new Design Museum looking down at the people and the space. Three times bigger than the previous one, it feels intimate and the sensation of being in a beautiful environment is irreplaceable. Of course, online, is now mature and accepted by all but still – people need to go to places to meet each other.”
Driving home from work recently, I decided to visit a store that I had been looking at for ages. Covering 4,000 square feet on a secondary back road in the middle of an area otherwise unworthy of anything retail, baby and infant store Huggle is a destination. It is the very definition of retail’s answer to the Michelin Guide’s three-star rating: “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. Only in this case, “cuisine” should be replaced with “retail experience”.
“Nothing can replace the experience of being around others” – Vittorio Radice, former CEO, Selfridges
The experience comes from the founding vision. Rachel and Jason Heller founded Huggle in 2010 upon return from living abroad in Canada with their newborn daughter when they saw a gap in the UK market for parents. While in Toronto, they had been so impressed with the retail environment for new parents in the country, featuring modern, stylish and health products alongside a core focus on customer service. When I sat down to talk with Jason, he told me that the concept for Huggle came from wanting to create a safe environment for all new parents. “We wanted to create an offline community,” he said. “Everyone is talking about the death of retail, but really, we wanted to give customers a reason to come to the store. There are a lot of international families around here, and not all of them have the built-in support system of parents living nearby. We wanted to give them a community.”
It is true, though, that Huggle does have a thriving ecommerce business too, accounting for 35% of its total revenues – up from 10% when it launched online – and only growing. From its modern, brightly-coloured website, the company sells its whole range of products for infants between birth and five years old and their parents, including pushchairs, furniture, bedding, clothing, toys and more. The curated selection of products are sleek and fit into parents’ lifestyles, with Scandinavian designed rocking chairs and organic sunscreens.
“We wanted to create an offline community. Everyone is talking about the death of retail, but really, we wanted to give customers a reason to come to the store” – Jason Heller, co-founder, Huggle
But more important than Huggle’s extensive online offering are the services it provides to parents from the store, tucked into the ground floor of a side street complex near London’s Swiss Cottage underground station. A bright and airy space, it invites parents in with a front door and walkways easily manoeuvrable for buggies. Once in, the staff are extremely friendly and welcoming, there is parking for pushchairs in the store and a place to store shoes for those attending a class in the store’s studio, which are flanked by huge windows. The espresso bar is warm and inviting – I can just imagine how many recent mums have made new local friends over a coffee and muffin.
With Rachel’s background in product marketing, working in roles with Barclaycard and American Express, and Jason’s history as a buyer for companies ranging from House of Fraser to Holt Renfrew, the two are clearly suited to curating the best selection of newborn and infant products. More than that, they have made Huggle an egalitarian environment for parents from all walks of life to come in and share the joys and troubles of rearing children. Classes with names like ‘Caterpillar Music’ and ‘Baby Sensory’ are at prices low enough to involve all members of the community. Exclusivity is not on the table: Huggle recognises that pregnancy and the first years of raising children are a vulnerable time for parents and works to make sure that the space is inclusive for all.
That’s not to say that luxury isn’t on the table. As Jason said, “we still need to offer services, but we didn’t want to scare anyone off”. Parents can make a private appointment at the store after hours to be guided through outfitting a home or nursery. And as a small, agile retailer, Huggle is often the first to sell brands in the UK before they move onto bigger retailers such as John Lewis – including the wildly popular YoYo Pushchair.
Jason noted that since the Hellers’ move back to the UK from Canada more than six years ago, the UK market has more than caught up in retail for new parents. Options now range from independent retailers like Baby Nest in Croydon and Peppermint in Chiswick to national and international chains such as Mamas & Papas and Mothercare. But even with growing competition, the focus at Huggle is not on expanding but on maintaining the community that has developed around the store.
Even though Selfridges did eventually make its way online, Vittorio was right that building a strong community is key to developing a bustling retail environment. Consumers can find nearly anything online these days – but what can’t be found via a website is real, face-to-face human connection. With the number of time-poor people rushing to and from work on the rise, retailers who can successfully curate a core clientele who value each other will find themselves at the forefront of their sectors.