From Couch to Couchella: Turning Habitat Into A Festival

So it’s 7pm, the last customer has scooped up their shopping bags, the shutters are rolling down and it’s time for our Tottenham Court Road store to be tucked up for the night. Or not. When the sun goes down, the disco lights come on as Habitat hosts a plethora of after-hours events. These can range for preview evenings, shopping events, press viewings and, in its most recent guise, an indoor festival called ‘Couchella’ to promote our range of (yeah, you’ve guessed it) sofas, to a bunch of stylish lifestyle bloggers.

Giant inflatable flamingo

But what goes into putting on an event like this? And who has the responsibility of getting it looking party-ready for the bloggers and back to being a customer-ready for the shopping public by 10am the following morning? Well it falls to Habitat’s team of in-house magicians, more commonly known as the Visual Merchandising team, and a few of their behind-the-scenes elves. We sat down with the team to find out what they get up to when the rest of us are heading home.

What are the initial steps when planning an event at a store?

So we had an initial briefing meeting at head office. Eleanor, the events manager, came to us with concept of what she would like to do. We all threw some ideas into the pot – some were quite ‘out there’, for example, the construction of a big bell tent, to lay grass, even install some portaloos…almost create a mini Glastonbury! But this is what brainstorming is all about and was really useful as we were initially having 2 ideas running concurrently: a Glastonbury vibe and its aftermath, with strewn wellies and mud versus a vision of the LA-based festival, Coachella.

We, as a VM team, pull the ideas back to what is achievable within the restrictions of a store and within a restricted time-period: what’s practical, what’s achievable within budget, and what’s going to give the most impact. As a result of the brainstorm, we zoned in on Coachella, or ‘Couchella’, with all its boho-chic, glamour and palm trees.

The VM team have experience of knowing what makes things look great in a physical space. Put simply, we make a room look strong. We think a lot about customer journey; we’re quite experienced in how we take a person through a space. So we bring all those considerations to the table and, where lots of ideas were bandied around, we would pull maybe 3 really strong strains from them to focus on.

What were the 3 key ideas you chose for Couchella?

One was the journey through the festival, so we had a planned route; as though you were travelling from stage to stage or, in our case, sofa to sofa. The creation of really strong backdrops to each sofa to give them an identity and create a theme. The digiscreen was a really important factor – it was instrumental in creating the atmosphere.

Bitter Sweet from Hoxton Radio DJ at the Coachella event

What was an example of something that didn’t make it?

The tent was a great idea and went through a number of guises but ultimately the store design meant we couldn’t pursue it. We were unable to secure it to the ceiling due the way the ceiling is constructed and we couldn’t fix it to the floor without damaging it. That’s the thing with these in-store evening events – it needs to be business as usual by opening time the following morning.

What background work had to be undertaken?

Well we created a floorplan to work from, detailing what stock we needed access to and what props had to be sourced. Then we turned to the graphic design team to create all the static imagery: backdrops, invites, festival passes, tattoos, the content for the digiscreen, as well as all the post-event website content.

Couchella back stage pass

We then coordinated all of this with the in-store team. We have to plan what has to move, where it has to go, what we need in place and how we make it happen on the night.

How does the day of the event map out?

We work all day of the event and have two teams working – one on the set-up (the evening shift) and one on the take-down (the morning shift).

We drop things in place gradually throughout the day – swapping sofas around, liaising with the external sound team, setting up the DJ booth, loading up and testing the digiscreen imagery. These are all things we can get on with quite early on without upsetting the customers currently visiting the store.

Yellow Momo sofa and multi coloured cushions

The next stage is installing the backdrops for each sofa area and styling it to give its personality. We did each of these one by one to cause minimal disruption to the store during its trading hours. It’s a lot to get to that point without disturbing the customer that is shopping. We have a half hour window between the store closing and the event starting and this is mayhem; getting everything cleared, doing the final tweaks, cordoning off areas and ensuring the party is already going in time for the first guests.

We have to have everything as it was before the doors open the following morning at 10am. So the morning shift started at 6am to do ‘recovery’ and get everything back. There are a lot of unsung heroes involved in the whole process – the stock room guys who’ll be hefting furniture all day. One guy, Cooper, is really great at supporting events, has loads of energy for it, but doesn’t get stressed. It’s people like him who really get the job done and without them the whole process would be near impossible.

Which was your favourite ‘stage’?

We liked ‘Hip Hop Opollo’ at the front – styling-wise it gave us a chance to do something a bit of out of the ordinary. We covered it in fur sheepskins and draped gold jewellery all over the place. It was fun and not the way we would usually merchandise our stores!

Brown leather sofa and sheepskin rug

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