Norwegian recliner specialist Ekornes, purveyor of the Stressless brand, opened its first UK showroom this summer. Located on London’s fast-evolving furniture retail strip, the store – formerly occupied by Designer Sofas – is set over two floors, and is the global brand’s first foray into D2C physical retail. Furniture News speaks to the MD of Ekornes UK, James Thompson, about this new take on Stressless’ brand positioning.
Armed with a rich resume of management roles – including Heal’s and Sandals – James joined the company in June 2017, and was a key driver behind the establishment of the first Stressless store.
Designed with the brand’s Scandinavian roots in mind, the store presents a pared-back, contemporary space, designed to evoke calmness and a domestic feel. The store houses the entirety of the brand’s UK collection – recliners, sofas, dining ranges and accessories – under one roof, and has attracted covetous glances from James’ international counterparts for its clean, honest take on Stressless’ comfort story.
Why open a store now, and not sooner?
When Stressless entered the market in 1971, it set a strategy to support independent retailers, and, five decades later, we remain true to that strategy.
Opening a Stressless brand store on Tottenham Court Road is a strategic move for the wider brand positioning in the UK market (also adding provenance within our Asian market). We’re a couple of years into our new strategy, with the goal of driving better margins for our retail partners. If necessary, Stressless is prepared to sacrifice volume in order to provide workable margins for them.
Yes, the shop is selling to our end consumer – but only at RRP. Doing this in our capital city is an obvious move for the brand, not to mention the population, transport links and general visits our retail partners make to the capital – it makes a great hub for all things Stressless.
Whilst the drive to opening the store was a brand-building move, it gives us further opportunities. Firstly, it provides a location that has every product on display under one roof, and is therefore perfect for running our Stressless school. Secondly, engaging directly with our end consumer puts us closer to understanding them, their needs and wishes for future product developments or marketing campaigns.
Retail is becoming increasingly experiential, and we wanted to have better control of that, and inspire our stockists, demonstrating how they could merchandise our product within their showrooms – and to be able to speak with experience, having proof of concept in our own shop, putting us back on the front foot.
Lastly, we’re building brand awareness on the busiest furniture street in the country, with 50% of the customers we’ve engaged with so far being new to the brand. Therefore, we do not deem it a threat to our other stockists, primarily due to our pricing strategy – ultimately it’s a statement that we are serious about our brand position and what the next 10 years holds for us in the UK.
Having traded for six weeks, we are generating a vast number of quotes, with the majority of these being converted in the customer’s local retailer – many are choosing to support their local shop.
Tottenham Court Road falls within the Fitzrovia Business Improvement District, which is investing to regenerate the local area, with a focus on returning many furniture brands to the street. Therefore, we feel this is a good long-term move for the brand, and for our retail partners. The early signs and feedback from them have been very positive.
What were the biggest challenges – and unexpected benefits – involved in setting up the store?
The principal challenge was finding a space of the right size in the right location. After that, the store underwent a complete refit, but it was of paramount importance that when you stepped through the doors, the environment reflected the heart of the Stressless brand – our quality and Norwegian heritage.
We worked with a highly experienced shopfitter who we could trust to deliver our first brand store. The store features the warmth of oak wood in the ceiling features and bespoke handrails passing our feature wall, which is clad in clay plaster by renowned artisanal Venetian plasterer Guy Valentine.
The furniture is illuminated by bespoke Stressless lighting that we’ve designed ourselves to enhance the upholstery and wood colours in-store. This is the same lighting that we’re now rolling out to our retailers.
What technology does the store incorporate to enhance the buying experience?
The Stressless 2019 studio concept features touchpads, which are mounted onto oak frames and linked to our product configurator to help the consumer visualise their ideal furniture in the nine million product combinations available.
We have also launched a new app with integrated Augmented Reality (AR) so the customer can visualise their product in their own home.
What’s your favourite aspect of the store?
Whilst I’m immensely proud of many of the physical aspects of the shop – and I could name many, from the consultation space which makes choosing a product as simple (or should I say Stressless?!) as possible, to the ambiance created – if I had to choose one aspect, it would be the impact it’s had on the team and our partners.
Seeing the pride they have when standing in their shop, the realisation of the potential of the brand and what they’re associated with, has been the most rewarding part of this project.
The store reflects a recent rebrand – what did this comprise?
The Stressless brand is known globally by millions of people, so it was important that we rebrand sympathetically, and therefore it was an evolution, not a revolution. Visually, there’s been a softening of the logo and imagery, relecting a fresh focus on the way Stressless makes you feel, not just the visual impact of the furniture.
We can get very technical with our brand and product, which is a great tool further down the buying process. But the buying decisions are primarily made in a split second, and based on an aesthetic, a look – will that look suit my home? Therefore, we’re working hard on the in-store environment, marketing and photography, and are very focused on how our products are displayed, to best encourage customers to sit on them. We can get technical later on!
Can you outline any product launches in the pipeline?
This has been a busy year thus far. We’re hugely proud of the three sofa models, recliner models and new accessories that we’ve launched this year, but the best is yet to come – many of these were launched at our Stressless show last month.
How has the business’ strategy shifted since it was acquired by Qumei last year?
In short, the principles and ethos of the business remain the same – however, everything has been fast-tracked. Since the acquisition of Ekornes ASA off the Oslo Stock Exchange, we’ve enjoyed a welcome focus on longer-term strategy, and it’s given the company a chance to invest in product development and innovation.
This has resulted in launching three new sofa groups (two with power) along with two recliners, all in the space of nine months. So, the new ownership has resulted in an injection of pace, which, in these changing times, is what’s needed.
The new ownership puts the wider business in good health, opening up the Asian market – not least due to it being owned by an operator of some 800 retail units in China, which has engaged a historically untapped market for the business. The European provenance of the brand remains a key factor – even more so for the middle- to high-end Chinese consumer – so our roots will remain firmly in Norway.
It is no secret that the UK market saw an increase in competition from other European manufacturers which destabilised sales in the early part of this decade. However, over the last two years we have seen stable growth in the UK, primarily because our partners understand the value of a quality product and brand. More importantly, it seems that the margin gain being experienced by our retailers is a welcome uplift in these challenging times.
With our margin and sales growth strategy firmly in place, our team remains focused on delivering growth – not just for Stressless, but for our partners too. This will be achieved through a better in-store experience thanks to the roll-out of our studio concept, keeping the customer journey as simple as possible – plus smarter marketing, along with better product launches, which will be introduced when they’re ready through our Stressless brand store – and not just once a year.
What’s the biggest threat to the Stressless brand, and how are you tackling it?
Being a firm believer that threats lead to opportunities, the biggest threat to Stressless and our wider network is the discount culture that’s deeply embedded in the furniture industry, which has been compounded by tougher times on the high street.
Many (larger) furniture businesses don’t have the ability to sell on good, old-fashioned features, benefits and brand values, and the national players are the epitome of what’s wrong with modern retail – every advert is championed by a misleading strapline discount.
Thankfully, we’re talking to an educated, independent retailer, and an informed, local, loyal customer, and our brand ambassadors understand our provenance and why we’re the best in the market at what we do – and not reliant on selling on price, or discount. This no doubt leads to better business for all those who understand where the brand is going and agree that quality over quantity is the measure of a successful brand and partnership.
The 3600 sqft Stressless store is located at 82 Tottenham Court Road, London.