Death of a role model

As my regular reader knows, I’m big on analogies. I think that analogies are a lot like shoals of shiny silvery fish, in the sense that they…no, that’s for another time.

A new one has recently come to mind – a retail business which casts a helpful light on how to get people more engaged with their personal finances. Only slight problem is, it came to mind on reading the news that the retail business in question has just gone bust.

It is of course Habitat, and I must say I’ve been quite impressed with the fondness and respect shown to the original mid-60s Habitat in the obituaries, especially those written by ageing journalists who were around (and young) at the time.

What they say is that there were of course furniture, kitchenware and homeware retailers before Habitat, but they were all overwhelmingly, well, brown. They were depressing, style-free places staffed with frightening men in ill-fitting suits, all dedicated to making your home look like your parents’ home.

In 1964, when Habitat launched, younger people probably didn’t really know what they did want their homes to look like, but they sure as hell knew what they didn’t. It was the perfect moment to present them with an alternative – and Habitat was it.

The main influences on the Terence Conran vision were actually Mediterranean, and that was pretty fashionable at the start of the era of packaged holidays to the Costas. But one suspects that the specifics were less important than the overall concept: Habitat was different, it was brighter, and it was fun. And, no less important, as the chain extended from its Kings Road starting point (and what better place to start?) it was available and affordable too.

When I come up with analogies I suspect I may have a habit of beating people around the head with their detailed workings. For once I shall resist this temptation, and say only this: look at all the direct-to-consumer investment, protection and long-term savings brands out there at the moment, and tell me which one is Habitat.

Here’s a clue: the answer is none of them. All I can see is brown (not actually brown, but conceptually brown) and frightening men.

Actually, on second thoughts, I feel I must make a second point too: right from the start, Habitat was as much about the presentation of the goods as it was about the goods themselves. If there’s one single thing that people could learn about from Habitat, I’d suggest it would be the Habitat catalogue.

Of course the pushback (as we used to say a few years ago) is that Habitat has indeed just gone bust. But on the other hand, that’s 47 years later. And the main reason why it went bust is that it delegated itself out of a job, so to speak: with 95% of the furniture, kitchenware and homeware sectors following Habitat’s example, its raison d’etre gradually chipped, cracked and frayed, a bit like so many of those earthenware chicken bricks, ceramic candle holders and Moroccan kelims.

Anyway. In terms of what we need to start properly transforming the direct-to-consumer financial services industry, Habitat is a new addition to a list that already includes Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Macintosh operating systems, the low-cost airline model of easyJet and Ryanair (although much more the former than the latter), Caffe Nero, Costas and Starbucks, the mobile phone network operators and, once, General Patton’s Third Army.

Having gone bust, I suppose Habitat can only make a brief appearance in the list. But it made a couple of good points in that short time, though, didn’t it?

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