retail watch | Jan 11, 2024 |
He invented modern home retail. Now his legacy is crumbling

Before Chuck Williams’s Williams-Sonoma, before Gordon Segal’s Crate & Barrel, and way before Gary Friedman’s RH, there was Terence Conran’s Habitat. Without Habitat, it’s safe to say none of the other “lifestyle” home furnishings retailers would exist as they do today.

Now Habitat is fading away. A little over three years after Conran’s death at 88, and decades after he parted ways with the chain, Habitat has announced it is closing its last stores in France. In the U.K., its original home base, the brand lives on only as a partnership with supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and has no freestanding stores.

In its heyday, Habitat was unquestionably the most exciting and innovative retailer of home furnishings in the world. Its combination of furniture, home decor, housewares and gifts—all with a decidedly contemporary feel, accented by a touch of whimsy—has never quite been duplicated by its many successors. Basing its merchandising around a design aesthetic rather than a product classification is standard retail practice today, but back then it was groundbreaking.

Conran, a furniture designer and design aficionado, founded Habitat in London in 1964. It caught on quickly as he opened additional locations throughout the U.K. and then expanded to Europe and eventually the U.S. He also bought retail chains outside of the home sector, and at its peak, under the corporate Storehouse name, Conran owned some 900 stores doing billions of dollars in annual sales.

His entry into the American market came in the mid-1970s. With another retailer already claiming the Habitat name, his U.S. stores were branded as Conran’s, with a debut shop on Manhattan’s east side in an awkward wraparound space. At the opening, when I asked Conran—he was yet to be knighted “Sir Terence”—why he chose such an odd location, he said the price was right. Future stores often turned up in less-than-prime retail real estate.

Bad locations may have played a role, but more likely, it was the rapid over-expansion and lack of sophisticated management that contributed most to Storehouse’s downfall. It was broken down and sold for parts, including to Ikea, which bought the Habitat brand in 1992. Eventually it got passed around to various owners before what appears to be its final resting spot this year. Also in 1992, the American brand was briefly resurrected by a group of ex-Bloomingdale’s executives, but it never caught on, and it, too, shut down.

Conran the man wasn’t done, however, and he went back into the home business under the Conran Shop banner, with stores in the U.K., Asia and even New York, many of which included restaurants. The Manhattan shop, under the Queensboro Bridge, was in yet another odd location (and today is a private event space). That store featured an unusual convex roof, and when I caught up with Conran at its opening in 2000, he said it was created when the cardboard model of the store he carried in his bag on the flight over was dented and he decided he liked the look. He was as good a storyteller as he was a designer.

The store moved briefly to the lower level of ABC Carpet & Home in the Flatiron neighborhood—likely another real estate bargain—but it didn’t last very long. Today, only the bits and pieces of that legacy remain, and their future remains in doubt. (The Conran Shop continues to operate in the U.K., the Middle East and Asia, but it has closed some stores, including its high-profile Paris location, and the brand is now in the hands of a corporate restructuring firm.)

For those who lived through all of the various incarnations of Terence Conran, it was an exhilarating ride, one that has left its mark on so many of today’s retailers—as well as any consumers who experienced it. While no one person invented the concept of lifestyle home retailing as it exists today, Terence Conran comes as close as anybody.

Correction: January 12, 2024
An earlier version of this article misstated that Conran’s entry into the American market was in the mid-1990s when it was actually in the mid-1970s.


Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.

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