Going, going gone: how Made, millennials’ favourite sofa-maker, wound up under the hammer | E-commerce

Every day since 16 November, 25 lorryloads of sleek, Scandinavian-inspired furniture have arrived at Europe’s largest indoor auctioneers in Port Talbot, south Wales. Staff at John Pye Auctions normally work from 8.30am to 5pm, but until Christmas the warehouse will be staffed from 5am to 2am as workers unload beige box after beige box into the 316,000 sq ft facility. From a metal balcony overlooking the warehouse, the stacked boxes look not unlike a towering cityscape. On the side of each is a white plus sign inside a circle – the logo of former furniture retailer Made.com.

Seven days before the first truck arrived, Made.com went into administration. Launched in London in 2010, until very recently Made was a success story: a disruptive e-commerce model combined with a desirable mid-century style helped the brand earn £100m in sales by 2017. You have probably encountered Made.com furniture if you’ve ever been inside a millennial’s home or even so much as glanced at Instagram – bright velvets, tapered wooden legs and gold accents put Made.com on the map. But now, seemingly overnight, the brand has been unmade.

“It has been described as the Indiana Jones warehouse – the amount of boxes we’ve got six, seven foot high,” says Jonathan Beasley, site manager at John Pye in Port Talbot. Administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) orchestrated the deal with John Pye to raise a small proportion of the £187m owed to Made.com’s creditors. The auctioneers are expecting to sell 30,000 items that will arrive in 1,100 lorryloads from two of Made.com’s warehouses.

On 27 November, the firm held its first online auction of stock, selling 1,039 pieces to about 700 customers. The most bid-upon item was an L-shaped navy velvet sofa with an RRP of £2,750 that went for £945. The biggest bargain was a £295 brass TV stand that sold for £42. One customer bought six items that would have cost them about £6,000 a few weeks ago. They bagged the lot for just over £2,000, including John Pye’s fees.

Like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark: John Pye’s warehouse full of Made.com boxes
Like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark: John Pye’s warehouse. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

“Made stuff is classic but a little bit quirky, that’s what I always liked about it,” says Claire, a 56-year-old from Derbyshire who managed to secure a blue corner sofa in the auction for just over £700. Claire previously purchased two yellow Made chairs for a holiday cottage she lets and says compliments from guests were abundant. “[Made] did have an iconic look but it wasn’t over-expensive, so it is a real shame that we won’t able to order from them any more,” she says. Her new sofa will go in her sunroom and she believes she got a good deal, as weeks ago the sofa was priced at around £2,000.

“The number of new bidders coming to our platform has been incredible, there’s an awful lot of excitement,” says operations director Steve Anderson. Frenzied bidding reveals that consumers still love the brand, which might leave many wondering: how exactly did this seemingly thriving company die?

On 2 February 2010, Julien Callède took a Eurostar from Paris to London to start a new business and life. British entrepreneur and Lastminute.com founder Brent Hoberman had approached e-commerce expert Ning Li with a plan to disrupt the furniture industry – Callède went to business school with Li and his experience working for a furniture importer meant he was brought on board. Completing the group was design specialist Chloe Macintosh; Callède says the four founders planned to “enable customers to finally get good quality, original design at a decent price”.

How, exactly? Callède says that a decade ago, British brands would bulk-buy furniture from factories in Asia, placing big orders to fill their stores up and down the UK. “That doesn’t enhance creativity because if you want to launch new ranges, try new designers, give a chance to new players, you can’t take a risk on buying 1,000 of the same piece from a Chinese factory,” Callède says. So brands did not take risks. Everything looked like everything else.

“What we did is very simple,” Callède says. Instead of bulk-buying pieces, waiting months for them to arrive, stocking them in shops and hoping they would sell, Made.com’s founders launched a website, showcased new designs from new designers and sold furniture before acquiring a single bit of stock. Only after receiving orders from customers did Made.com place its own with manufacturers, buying only what had already sold. This meant that customers were forced to wait for their goods, but – crucially – they also got them more cheaply because Made.com had removed the middleman and wasn’t spending huge sums pre-ordering a lot of stock.

“That was the original innovation – releasing new original products of good quality for cheaper prices just because people would be happy to wait,” Callède says. “They’d be happy to wait because they get better items or they actually like the concept.” Just over a month after Callède arrived in London, Made.com was launched.

‘It felt like a premium brand’: a typical Made.com sofa.
‘It felt like a premium brand’: a typical Made.com sofa. Photograph: Made.com

Callède describes those early days as “fast-paced”, “extremely exciting” and “full of creativity” – but naturally there were still teething problems. Callède personally visited manufacturers to convince them the business model would work and these conversations were not always easy.

“Going to the factory, you had no credentials, nobody knew you,” he says. Callède eventually convinced manufacturers that he would be able to offer them regular orders and a stable flow of work; meanwhile, the brand had to assure customers that it would not run away with their money. “We had to show we were a trustable brand, which took time,” Callède says. And then, three months in, Made.com’s first warehouse partner went bankrupt.

But Callède says Made.com was able to respond to these challenges because it had agility as a young company. And ultimately, Made.com didn’t have to wait too long for success to arrive. In 2012, the business raised £6m in funding to aid international expansion and in 2013, the British government backed the company by selecting it for its Future Fifty programme, an initiative designed to fast track growing tech businesses by providing it with public and private sector support. Sales passed £1bn around the brand’s 10th birthday, by which point Made.com had a loyal and enthusiastic customer base in seven European countries, including France, Germany and Spain.

“It felt like a premium brand,” says Daisy Jordan, a 31-year-old from Margate who runs style website Wear Next. Jordan bought a home in December 2021 and when it came time to furnish it, “it was kind of a given, in a way, that we were going to go to Made.com because their stuff was so nice”. Jordan bought a statement yellow sofa for about £300, “quite cheap” compared with similar options on the market. “It felt like one of the best furniture places around,” she says.

“At the end of the day, the reason people loved Made.com is that we were giving them access to something that they didn’t have,” Callède says. Before, he argues, people had cheap, functional furniture from “our Swedish friends, and it’s not even that bad looking, but everybody’s got it”. The other option was expensive luxury furniture – there wasn’t much of a middle market. “What we did is we gave customers access to things that were an upgrade from the cheap ones but at the same price as the cheap ones or we also had higher-end pieces that cost half the price of a piece you’d find at top-end design chains. I think that’s what people liked.”

Playwright Camilla Whitehill had a love-hate relationship with Made.com. The 33-year-old Londoner’s bed is from the firm and it arrived quickly, but she waited nearly half a year for some plant pots. “I’d forgotten about them. I was like, why did that take five months?” she says. Even so, she recently ordered a burnt-orange sofa bed from Made.com because she couldn’t find anything similar on the market and she thought it was worth waiting for, even if it took a year.

Callède says that as the brand grew, it did begin pre-buying and storing more stock, a move that helped reduce delivery times. Yet this ultimately led to Made.com’s downfall. The firm thrived during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic, but supply chain issues slowed deliveries down. To solve the problem, Made.com doubled its UK warehouse space in April 2021, reducing wait times but significantly increasing its own operating costs. Then, a return to normal life coupled with a cost of living crisis meant sales slowed.

“They fundamentally tweaked that low inventory risk model and overloaded in stock at a time where the market went down,” Callède says. He left Made.com in 2017 because he felt it had become “a bit bulky” and found it harder to innovate; he wanted to “disrupt some new industries”. But Callède stresses that he left Made.com because it was doing well, not because it was struggling. “I left because I was confident that the staff could do a good job, the team were doing a great job,” he says, “My only worry was that maybe we were going to become a boring retailer.” He “never imagined” that within five years of his departure, the company would go bust.

In June 2021, Made.com went public on the London Stock Exchange and though the brand was valued at £775m, its shares fell 7% on its first day of trading. Just over a year later, in September, the company announced that it was cutting jobs and putting itself up for sale because of supply chain issues and increased freight costs (which rose from £8.2m to £45.3m in a year). Yet no buyer stepped forward in time and the firm stopped taking orders in October before collapsing into administration on 9 November.

Julien Callède, one of the founders of Made.com, thought that the firm was the victim of a ‘tough environment that nobody would have foreseen’.
Julien Callède, one of the founders of Made.com, thought that the firm was the victim of a ‘tough environment that nobody would have foreseen’. Photograph: Anna Gordon

From the outside, Callède believes that Made.com suffered from supply and warehousing issues thanks to the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine; he also feels that higher-ups got “too excited” about growth and erroneously expected it to continue. Callède also speculates that the company’s structure became too bulky – managers expect more “comfort” than the founders, he says, as the latter are passionate enough to work hard for smaller monetary rewards. Made.com hired big-name executives throughout 2022: in May, the company appointed ex-John Lewis director Patrick Lewis as its chief financial officer and Snapchat’s Claire Valoti joined its board.

“There must have been a way of acting or reacting differently,” Callède says, “but I’d remain very cautious about raising any judgment there as teams were passionate, working hard and doing their best in a tough environment that nobody would have foreseen just a few quarters before.”

Unsecured creditors are expected to recoup just 2% of what they’re owed, while approximately 12,000 customers have been left without the furniture they paid for and 320 staff have been made redundant (Whitehill’s sofa never arrived, but she managed to get a refund via PayPal). One former employee made redundant on a 9 November company-wide Zoom call says the experience was “terrible” and describes the PwC employee leading it as having “no empathy, no anything”. After informing staff they were redundant, the administrator allegedly abruptly ended the call, “boom, pushed the button and the screen turned black”. About 130 former employees are now taking legal action via the law firm Aticus – if successful, those involved could receive up to eight weeks’ pay in compensation.

PwC says: “It is with real regret that redundancies have to be made. We understand that this is an incredibly difficult time for affected staff.”

Regarding the Zoom call, it says: “Due to the volume of people sadly affected, many of whom were working from home or in separate locations, the call with staff was held virtually, as was common given the online nature of the business. While it was not possible to hold a Q&A given the number of people on the call, all staff were emailed on the same day with the relevant details and offered appropriate advice.”

PwC also says it fulfilled nearly 4,500 orders that were already within the delivery network when the company went into administration. It advises anyone who has not yet received their order to check their debit and credit card purchase protection agreements. Anyone who is unable to obtain a refund through their card provider can submit a claim to PwC.

Another former employee says the business had been tightening its belt throughout the year and while they expected some redundancies, they did not think the company would collapse. The employee says many colleagues found out about the administration from the media and feel Made.com was not open enough with its staff.

Made.com co-founder Ning Li said he attempted to save the company. ‘I want you to know that I really tried,’ he told staff.
Made.com co-founder Ning Li said he attempted to save the company. ‘I want you to know that I really tried,’ he told staff. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

On LinkedIn, one former employee has expressed anger about the salaries and bonuses paid to its executives, writing: “[It’s] sickening that two people were being paid nearly £1m combined. Meanwhile hundreds of my friends and former colleagues around the world, some of the most talented, loyal, dedicated and hardworking people you’ll ever meet are suffering from anxiety and depression, wondering what the future will hold.”

Also on LinkedIn, founder Hoberman, who left Made.com’s board before its flotation, wrote that he “was wary of the public company journey should markets become volatile” and added: “Made.com got caught with massive inventory at just the wrong time.” Co-founder Ning Li – who stepped down as chief executive in 2017 but remained the brand’s third-largest shareholder – told staff that he tried to buy and save the company: “Apparently, it would be preferable to break the company up and sell it in pieces to generate a little more cash, rather than saving jobs and honouring our customers,” he wrote. “It makes no sense to me. But I wanted you to know that I really tried.”

Made.com’s name was bought by clothing and homeware brand Next for just £3.4m. Type Made.com into your browser and you will be redirected to the Next website and a message that reads: “Made.com has ceased trading but will be coming back next year operated by Next.” In the meantime, John Pye employees are working hard to store and sell the last of its furniture. “I think it will be the most stock we’ve had on site,” says manager Beasley – there are even more boxes than there were during Covid backlogs.

Walking past stack after stack of “elite grey” sofas, “modular bean seats” and “distressed oak” media units, it’s easy to see just how far Made.com strayed from its original low-inventory model. Normally, Beasley says, John Pye sells “anything that hasn’t got a heartbeat” – gym equipment, appliances and carpets that are often unsold stock or customer returns from big brands. In contrast, the Made.com furniture filling the Welsh warehouse was never really unwanted. And yet here it is regardless.

Simonne Stigall

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