24 May 2024, 15:18
By Furniture News Jan 17, 2020

Robert Bridgman's sofa sector disruptor

When the bed-in-a-box concept introduced shoppers to a new level of convenience and clarity (wrapped up with a glossy, digital bow), the mattress sector was left reeling. In time, the business model’s flaws became clear – but not before the disruptors had seized some serious market share, writes Paul Farley. Today, a new boxed sofa concept promises to equally unseat the upholstery sector – but it’s no use being ahead of the curve if you’re not built to last, says Robert Bridgman …

Nature abhors a vacuum. When the digital disruptors identified a gap in the furniture market for clear, convenient fulfilment, their offer resounded with those tech-savvy, time-poor consumers that had become disillusioned with traditional retail.

Now the industry faces a new wave of disruption, and at its crest is Snug Shack, the UK’s first sofa-in-a-box brand. 

Principally a digital brand, Snug Shack has traditional foundations. Founder and ‘chief rebel’ Robert Bridgman also manages the family business, a supplier of premium garden furniture. 

Like many of the upstarts that came before it, Snug Shack was born out of frustration, says Robert.

“I was moving house two years ago, and wanted a good sofa. I quickly discovered I’d have to wait for it – most of the premium players offered 6-8 week delivery. As it happened, my order should’ve taken six weeks but took nine, and there was no communication at all from the supplier. When it finally arrived, it didn’t fit through the door, and because I’d had it made to order, I couldn’t send it back. What should have been an exciting experience was really stressful.”

Robert’s dissatisfaction was both personal and professional. The family business had long kept goods in stock for rapid delivery, creating different expectations around fulfilment.

“In the upholstery industry it seems that payment is generally taken up front, which then funds production. At Bridgman, we’d already evolved away from that model. With garden furniture, you can’t do JIT production – as soon as the sun comes out, people want it the next day.”

Robert knew there had to be an easier way from a consumer POV – but that it would be expensive, require commitment, and mean maximising the online opportunity.

“Ten years ago, with the dot-com boom (and bust), the furniture industry really started to pay attention to ecommerce,” he recalls. “At Bridgman, we recognised the need to do things differently, and set up a website to clear wholesale stock. That’s when we really saw the power of the Internet – we were shocked that anyone would spend thousands online without seeing the product in person.

“Since then, you’ve had Made, Swoon, all those bed-in-a-box players popping up … I knew, whatever, we had to put the consumer first.”

Recipe for success

Robert saw a sector ripe for reinvention – but first, he needed a product.

“At Bridgman, our focus is innovation,” he explains. “We’ve got over 40 years’ product and manufacturing experience in-house. In short, we wanted a premium product at a mid-market price point, and we knew the only way to achieve this was by designing and selling our own product.

“Our research told us that a barrier goes up in people’s minds when an item costs over £1000, so we knew we had to keep it under that.”

Robert’s concept was a sofa-in-a-box – a convenient, high-quality RTA model that could be marketed and supplied in a similar manner to the bed-in-a-box, but, thanks to its modular construction, would offer the possibility of progression following the initial purchase.

“We basically reverse-engineered the sofa to come apart,” says Robert. “We could bake every issue into the design, with better quality and comfort than you’d expect from an RTA or flat-pack product.”

His models would promise comfort (“I’ve owned several sofas that are too deep, and you shouldn’t need scatter cushions to prop you up”), built-in stain resistance, and high-quality finishes and fabrics.

“Being a British manufacturer ourselves, we really wanted this to be made in the UK,” says Robert, “but despite going to great lengths to find a partner, we hit a brick wall. Fortuitously, I then bumped into an old contact in Europe, and, right away, we had a prototype. We wanted to be first to market with this concept in the UK, so it was a relief to find a partner with that level of dynamism.”

Convenience story

Quick turnaround was always going to be pivotal to Snug Shack’s offer, which meant holding stock in the UK. 

Achieving a three-day turnaround was one of the most challenging aspects of last spring’s launch, says Robert: “Customers are very busy, so communication is key – but we’ve found that logistics partners’ technology is often outdated and doesn’t link into modern systems.” 

But it’s been worth it. Snug Shack can now steal a march on those made-to-order suppliers who are forced to close their order books early – particularly at times like the run-up to Christmas.

Robert discusses the expanded range at October’s launch event

“I feel the industry has been a bit complacent,” says Robert. “I’m used to shopping on my phone, getting what I’ve ordered quickly, and solving any issues pretty much instantly. It’s not rocket science – it’s just about understanding the way consumers think, and tapping into what they want.”

For Robert, convenience is king, and this mantra doesn’t stop upon delivery (which is free, “comfortably” within three days, and in a box that’s small enough to transport “in the back of an UberXL”). “A lot of our customers are time-poor and live in cities and towns, often in converted properties with poor access,” he explains, “and, in these situations (and speaking from experience!), a boxed solution is invaluable.”

Upon unboxing, sofas can be assembled in less than three minutes, with no tools or extra hands required. Like its boxed mattress counterparts, Snug Shack offers a no-strings returns period (30 days). And, if the buyer decides to send it back, or is moving home, they can take the sofa apart as quickly and cleanly as they assembled it, without damaging it. 

In October, five months after launch, Snug Shack revealed the next stage of its concept – add-on modularity. With the introduction of extra parts, a three-seater sofa can be turned into a corner unit, or vice versa, while new leg and arm options incoming will enable buyers to update the look and feel of their existing models. 

“We designed it so it can grow with you as you move,” says Robert. “We wanted to be first to market with the sofa-in-a-box concept, so we launched our core product last spring, knowing that we’d expand it very quickly. It’s made the creation of new collections much easier.”

History lessons

“The mattress sector, which has been so heavily disrupted, is worth £750m,” says Robert, “but, at £3b, the stakes are much higher in the upholstery market – the opportunity for disruption is huge.”

Yet he’s careful not to draw too many comparisons with that previous movement, in which marketing overspend and a lack of physical presence hamstrung many of the leading brands.

“There’s so many good things to take from their example,” he says. “They’re vertically aligned, and designed around what the customer wants. I personally think that’s a stronger model than going from manufacturer to retail to consumer – but you have to fund it. 

“Too much reliance on quick wins, paid advertising (Google and social media) and international expansion – and, clearly, far too much money spent on marketing – means they’ve come unstuck in almost every area.

“Investor funding was integral to their model, and our international sofa-in-a-box counterparts in Canada, Australia and the US have already gone down that route.

“But the whole model is like a house of cards. Venture capital has poor odds – they want 10 x return in 5-7 years, so businesses are forced to go public, sell, or worse.

“Business needs to be sustainable. In just seven years, the bed-in-a-box market has become saturated – there’s something like 170 bed-in-a-box companies in the US. But look at Tuft & Needle, which isn’t investor-funded, and is doing very well – it proves there’s other ways of doing it. 

“What we’re doing is going to look different. The funding won’t be as readily available, but we want to build a company that’s going to be around for decades, not years. You can go for growth, but not growth at all costs.”

Built to last

The benefit of hindsight also allows Snug Shack to refine its sales channels from the outset. 

Many of the digital disruptors failed to appreciate the limitations of an online-only model early on, and were increasingly forced to partner with bricks-and-mortar retailers in a bid to grow their audiences. Utilising Bridgman’s existing UK showrooms, Snug Shack was multichannel from the start, and Robert is keen to expand that physical presence.

“Even if your product is different, in demand, and you’ve removed the barriers to purchase as much as possible,” he explains, “a sofa still costs a considerable sum of money, so some people will always want to sit on it before they buy it. We’re more than open to the idea of building our network.”

Conversely, perhaps more stores will be receptive to new ideas this time around, suggests Robert: “It’ll be interesting to see who jumps in head first, having missed the first round!

“Either way, I’m confident this is the start of a new category in furniture, and I genuinely think we’re the first movers in what’s going to be quite a disruptive force in the industry.”

It’s not going to take long for others to catch on, he says – indeed, they’re only likely to “help spread the word” – but Snug Shack will not be rushed.

“There will always be fads and flashes in the pan,” concludes Robert, “but we want to do this properly, and be around for many, many years, so if any customer has issues in five – or 10 – years’ time, we can help resolve them, and keep expanding. We’re building a sustainable brand.”

Boxing clever, you might say …

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