“It will require some work, reengineering the assortment, the brand and the shift towards attainable objects of desire. The furniture is the hero, the beautiful sofa, the gorgeous cushion, the wonderful textile. We’re hero-ing the product, rather than the room …it’s not about curling about on the sofa for moving nights, it’s about the incredible sofa you fall in love with.”
A new team on board
To lead Freedom’s return to its design roots, an internal design team was brought on board late last year. According to Callard, most furniture brands in Australian have talented buying teams with great taste who know how to curate a stylish collection, but few actually have their own design teams.
“Back in the ‘90s, Freedom was the go-to furniture store for design but over time, my view is that it had become vanilla and tired as the customer base aged. The assortment became homogeneous, even dated,” Callard explained.
“The internal business structure was not based around the idea of design as being the centre of gravity. It hadn’t had a design team for 10 years. It’s had a buying team, but not a design team. That design positioning is at the heart of this rebrand.”
Late last year, Callard hired Kate Hopwood to build and lead a Sydney-based design team to create unique products specifically catering to Australian consumers’ tastes, lifestyles and aesthetics. Hopwood is the former head of design at Kmart and was instrumental in the repositioning of the discount department store’s homewares category in recent years (“while we all watched in amazement as Kmart went from daggy to trendy!”).
This move towards a more design-led offer is also part of Callard’s plan to re-focus Freedom as a mid-tier Australian furniture retailer for younger, style-savvy customers furnishing their first home, a category which he believes is currently being under-served in the market.
“If you think about positioning, there are other retailers who work this way with a design team. At the budget end, you have Ikea, which is not in Australia, and where design starts and ends,” said the former Harvey Norman exec. “At the top end, it’s Coco Republic and boutique independent stores, but no-one is playing in the middle space with authority with a large Australian-based design team.
Freedom’s fresh new brand platform is “more confident, more Australian and has more design swagger than ever before”, described Matt Newell, CEO of The General Store, which worked with the retailer on the rebrand, including a 30 second TV commercial which was just unveiled today.
“Reimagining the brand platform for such an iconic brand is a delicate balancing act. We worked hard to carry forward the essence of the core brand, to build on it authentically, while breathing new life into the brand,” he explained.
Since the pandemic hit, it’s been reported that consumers are more open to buying from Australian-made products from Australian businesses to support the local economy. According to a survey from Australia Post, 30 per cent of respondents said they would make more of an effort to buy locally made products and 23 per cent said they are more conscious of buying from local businesses.
In the past year, Freedom has halved its previous list of 300 overseas factories across nine countries, predominantly China, Vietnam and India, and now, it is working with 30 manufacturers and distributors in Australia to help the local industry, said Callard. Locally made upholstery and dining has recently been introduced to the range, too.
“We haven’t had Australian products in Freedom for a long time. Historically, Freedom was a supporter of Australian manufacturers, but then we moved heavily away from importing and now we want a better balance,” he said. “Australian consumers are looking for Australian-made, so for us, it’s about being Australian-made where we can. [The local manufacturing industry] is not what it once was, but we’d like to support it as best we can.”
Omnichannel on the rise
Like many modern retailers in the current climate, omnichannel is a significant part of Freedom’s transformation, including the replatforming of its website, which will be unveiled in 18 months’ time and feature more interactivity and customisation, visualisation tools, larger images and more content to educate and inspire. And as customers’ expectations around delivery have risen since the pandemic, Freedom will also be transforming that part of the business in the next year.
“We’ve all been shopping from home a lot more and getting more deliveries… but these big furniture items are different. They’re not ‘drop and go’, it’s not Australia Post, it’s a specialist delivery or a third party in-house delivery service and we’re working hard on it, but we’ve got a lot to do. People want installation too, so balancing that with contactless has been a challenge,” explained Callard.
“Customers appreciate when a company takes the time to have a thoughtful approach: ‘I don’t want you to come in, but I don’t want you to leave the packaging on the porch, either.’ We’re going to build capability in that space even more over the next year. It’s a really big focus point for successful furniture retailers in the next 12 months.
Callard admitted that in the past year, Freedom has faced some “acutely painful” challenges with its order management system, which cost the retailer customers.
“We had a tough year in terms of letting customers down, we had IT problems as part of our order management system and we let a lot of people down. And to be honest, it wasn’t our finest hour,” he said. “That’s a project that had been in the works for three years and it went live and it was painful, but we’re through the worst of that now and we’ve got to make up a lot of ground and make changes.”
And while many physical retailers are looking to consolidate or right-size their store network in the current climate, Callard is bullish about the future of bricks-and-mortar retail working hand-in-hand with digital, particularly in furniture retail. As he explained, 90 per cent of home and interiors purchases still take place in-store and more than 95 per cent of furniture sales involve a store visit.
“[Bricks-and-mortar] is not going away and the role of stores is to create spaces that inspire customers and showcase our capabilities around design…We’ve been doing a lot of training to upskill [our teams] so customers get the human-to-human experience, it’s not about kiosks or tablets. People don’t come into your store to play with a screen, they come in to talk to a person. We’re doing a lot of work on cultural change and upskilling to get to a new standard. It’s an area that’s been neglected by a lot of competitors,” he said.
“It’s a year of change. Freedom is in turnaround, so not everything is perfect, but some things are better and some things are improving. The brand will look and feel completely different by early next calendar year. New brand, new logo, new DNA for the marketing, new website, new assortment, new look and feel in stores. It is a big change and if we get the culture right, you’re not going to recognise a Freedom store by next year.”