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From duvets and pillows to Soak&Sleep: interview with entrepreneur Charlie Hunt

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£12m turnover pureplay the Duvet and Pillow Warehouse rebrands as Soak&Sleep today. Chloe Rigby interviews its founder and chief executive, Charlie Hunt.

When Charlie Hunt launched online retailer the Duvet and Pilow Warehouse , back in 2006, he did so on a wing and a prayer. He spent start-up capital of £100 on a $99 website and proceeded to set about selling online duvets and pillows, travelling the world to find suppliers.

It may seem an optimistic approach, but Hunt had previously run a business selling bedding and he saw a niche opportunity to sell these essential items direct to the public online, rather than through shops. Buying straight from the factories who made them, wherever they were in the world, would cut out the middleman and enable him to offer duvets and pillows direct to the public at prices that were then up to 70% less than store prices. Today that margin is still, says Hunt, at between 35% and 50% cheaper.

But Hunt, says, it’s more than low prices that has propelled the retailer’s growth from a start-up that turned over £64,000 in 2007 to a business that today turns over £12m and is, as of last autumn, chaired by Sir Stuart Rose, the man who, said Hunt, “was the guy who sold the most duvets and pillows in the country through Marks & Spencer. He believes we can do the same online.”

“We understood from day one it was all about the lifetime value of the customer,” said Hunt. “Once we’d won a customer we had to love them to death so that they never left us.” The main focus of the business is still on retaining its more than 200,000 customers. “The absolute crucial thing is to provide an experience to the customer that exceeds expectations from start to finish.”

In practice that has meant concentrating on fast deliveries – 93% of deliveries arrive the next day, said Hunt, while same-day delivery is soon to be introduced – as well as on the quality of packaging and of products. Elaborating on plans for same-day delivery that will mean customers in the Home Counties who place an order by a yet-to-be-specified time will receive their deliveries through the afternoon and evening, Hunt said: “I can’t think of anything nicer than saying to our customer, sitting in their office or at home, that it is easier to buy something online than to drive to the King’s Road, buy something and come back. It’s easier and cheaper.”

Now Hunt is turning his attention to the brand as he sets his sights on the next target – turning over £50m over the next four years. Rose, he says, is a strong advocate as the company moves forward towards that goal. “He gives me constant good advice and he’s very involved in the business, very hands on and brings a discipline from a chairman’s position that will help a young company like us get to £50m. He’s very much bringing experience of the industry and of management disciplines to the business to help us achieve our goals.”

The rebrand to Soak&Sleep is part of that new focus on the brand. Over the last year the quality of imagery on the site, for example, has been steadily improving, said Hunt. With the new name, introduced today, said Hunt, comes a focus on expertise, specialism and aspiration, rather than purely on the products. The focus on affordability and customer service remains, he promises, bolstered by events such as planned pillow roadshows. But as well as being an aspirational name, the name was also chosen for its cross-border potential. “The plan was to have a truly international name that was scalable for our international ambitions,” said Hunt. Growth over the next four years is expected to come from the UK but also from international markets. The first overseas venture will start in September – though Hunt has not yet said where the first launch market will be.

Such a retail business might also expect to expand through its own shops. But while Hunt says “it’s never a no,” it’s also not on the horizon in the short term. “We’re still very much focused,” said Hunt, “on rebranding and making sure we can meet the demand of the growth that’s coming through.”

It looks set to be an interesting journey.

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