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Happy Days Are Here Again?

Furniture World Magazine
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Article Summary: Three furniture retailers in areas of high unemployment are enthusiastic about doing lots more business in 2010.

View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone


Three furniture retailers in areas of high unemployment

are enthusiastic about doing lots more business in 2010.

 

by Janet Holt-Johnstone

 

Some eminent economists are eating their words with their foie gras.  After all the doom and gloom, they’re telling us now that 2010 marks a turning point from recession retreat to a fresh mind set, a manifestation of wide-spread “frugality fatigue”!  Great news for retailers everywhere!

 

For many months “being frugal” was the new chic, a perceived long-term adjustment of the Western way of life.  But here we are, confronting North American consumers beginning to consume again. In many quarters, assets that seemed frozen are experiencing rapid climate change.

 

Industry analysts see “a dramatic increase in pent-up demand”.  Could we be easing back to the luxe life?  And are we ready with strategies in place to ride with the wave?

 

Retailers visiting the Canadian Home Furnishings Market in Toronto absorbed the Trends Display’s overt and mood-altering acknowledgement of optimism.  Andre Caron and Pierre D’Anjou “immerse themselves” in comprehensive research, study international trends, get in touch with business, consumer and design attitudes, even movements in world commercial markets, before they choose the Displays’ direction.  “There’s a liveliness in the air,” said Pierre, “Everything is suddenly more competitive.  The momentum is coming back!  And after a period in the dessert, people crave drama, colour, contrast, intimacy, extravagance and glamour!”

 

University of Toronto’s Kelvin Browne asserts that we’re led by “a maturing boomer generation, more determined than ever to be individualistic, rekindling 1960s counterculture passion”.  And we are “spurred by 30 to 40 year olds with spending power and exposure to a world of options”.  Frugality?  “It’s old, it’s tired, it’s no longer relevant!”

 

Brand consultant Lee Jacobson adds, “The Internet is a prime driver of the return to nonconformism, presenting a method to easily purchase diverse things from all over the globe.  It proves to people there is no one right way to live.”

The consumer has recognized that the universe is not all grey and dreary, sunlight is filtering through, there are jobs opening up in pockets of diversification, green concepts have developed validity, the battered housing industry is in recovery.  If happy days are not quite here again, they appear to be right around the corner.

 

Essex Home Furnishings
"
Sales Up 23%"

 

Melanie Oliver said, “At the end of the day, customers will buy what they want to buy.  It’s up to us to listen.  Every time a customer steps into our store, we have an opportunity to get in touch with their thinking.  During difficult times we must keep our showrooms up to date, change on a regular basis, present cutting edge styling to entice them, stimulate their imaginations.  If they haven’t been able to afford a sofa, they can indulge in a print, a lamp, an accent piece.  And when they have money in their pockets again and space on their credit cards, they’ll remember us and come back.”

 

As Marketing Manager of Essex Home Furnishings and a team member for the past 10 years, Melanie has more challenges than most. The Windsor and Essex County region (across the river from Detroit) has the highest unemployment figures in Canada, 15.5 per cent.  Add to that, the illness and recent death of the owner’s grandson dramatically heightened the stress levels. But Dan Turner was astonished to discover that during his absences from the store, sales went up an incredible 23 per cent! “We gained a lot of market share. The staff worked 110 per cent.  After 35 years in business, I realize this is the best team we’ve ever assembled.”

 

Three years ago, Dan’s lease in the county town of Essex came due, and it was time to make a move.  He bought an old furniture store situated “right where highway 401 ends in Windsor, 18,000 square feet.  It turned out to be the right mix and the right location. We’re better able here to serve Amherstburg, LaSalle and other adjoining communities.

 

“Sure, Windsor’s suffered tough times.  But there are real possibilities now for diversification away from the decades-long focus on the automotive industry.  We have a pool of great engineers, and right now an automotive plant is being transformed to make wind turbines, 300 new jobs in wind power.  And there are plans to develop tourism, great opportunities, it’s a beautiful and historic area.  We’ll soon have 17 wineries in operation!

 

“We’re buying from more Canadian suppliers, less from importers.  Customers are looking for quality.

 

“Ten years on we’ll be in a different location.  The Ambassador Bridge has been a connecting link between Windsor and Detroit for many years and now, because of traffic demands between Canada and the U.S., a second bridge will be built.  And, guess what? The new bridge route goes right through our store!  We’ll be looking for the perfect new location and the province will take care of construction for us.”

 

Said Melanie, “We have a fantastic team, almost like a family.  All of us want Dan to succeed; if the place is doing well, we’ll do well, too!”

 

“You can feel the energy!” Dan told us.  “The future is more about people than just looking at the bottom line.  And we have a great group of suppliers with whom we have personal relationships; they have been and are very supportive.  2010?  Bring it on!”

 

Visit Dan and Melanie at www.essexhomefurnishings.com.

 

Bertoni Chairs and Things
"You can’t make gold out of mud."

 

Ornella Bertoni shares the same economic environment, and a similar philosophy after 24 years in business.  The decade ahead holds no terrors for Ornella.  “The economy needs botox!” she declared.  “A lot of stores have closed.  This is a working class town with high unemployment, but customers are beginning to realize that if you pay for junk, you get junk.  People have been buying disposable things, but they’re seeing the folly of their ways.”

 

Bertoni Chairs and Things is a 5,000 square foot up-market boutique, and Ornella sells “anything you can sit on” plus marvellous accents that make all the difference in décor. “Customers now want to know where furniture is made.  In my store 85 per cent is Canadian, the remaining 15 per cent Italian. The Calligaris factory is one half hour from where I was born, quality contemporary furniture, whimsical but more pragmatic.  Multi functional, multi purpose, space saving tables, expansion tables.

 

“Years ago customers came in as a young couple.  Now they are selling the big house and buying their condo.  We’ve grown up with our customers; it’s good for the soul. But our marketing now is different, radio promotion for instance.  A local builder gave away a house for charity and we furnished it, a good promotion.  We use print advertising with The Windsor Star, three times a week, very specific messages.  And we hear back from our marketing. The biggest share of people in the city still get The Windsor Star.  It’s a great newspaper! We have our generational repeats with our customers, but we’re also getting new customers from newspapers and radio.  Also there are newsletters, seniors’ papers; we offer them a 10 per cent discount.”

 

The future? “Most of us retailers are reactive, not proactive.  We attend all the shows/markets. We clear our floors, bringing in new stuff.  We turn floor models over.  Maybe introduce a hot pink bench to startle them!  Shake them up a little with different things, something furry perhaps, tactile, interactive.

 

“The Internet obviously will be increasingly important, Facebook, Twitter, approaching décor visually.  But I will never sell on the Internet.  I can’t take a 6’2” customer or one who is 5’2” and guide them to correct seating on the Internet!  The piece has to fit you.  You don’t want your customers to keep sliding off their couch.  You must be interactive with your customer.

 

“In the next decade there’s no doubt the economy will get better, and we will strategize accordingly.  New industries are coming to Windsor, different types of jobs, green sector technological jobs.  There are smart people here.  We’ll show the rest of the world how great we are!

 

“We are glad to have survived the last few years. We haven’t had to let people go, and we’ve been able to maintain some level of sales.  We have not cheapened our line.  You can’t make gold out of mud; the pieces have to be solid, have to be Canadian. Or maybe Italian,” she grinned. “A young couple came in and wanted to buy a cheap dining room suite. I suggested they buy a kitchen table for now and save up for a good dining room suite. Saving is not the Antichrist!

 

“Ten years from now we’ll still be here providing for people in Windsor.  By then there’ll be yet another generation!”  In the meantime, see Ornella at www.bertonichairs.com.

 

Pierre and Andre’s mission has always been to assist retailers in their showroom displays, to inspire, open their minds to the unusual, the arresting, the triggers that help consumers make the decision to buy.  “The glitz, the glitter, the glam...  and the practicalities!” This year that focused on “white, the new horizon, with colour everywhere on accessory surfaces, vertical panels, inexpensive as a can of paint but up-market in impact.  Lights are suspended, playing with colour inside and out, a wall décor of huge lilies in white, of course, and a vibrant green. White tubes like a forest of bamboo sparked with acoustic panels in dense orange, metallics, dramatic stripes in black and white.  Set within a set. Ways to ‘show off’ furniture, make it the focal point the customers’ eyes are drawn to. Your showrooms must be an ongoing invitation to your customers to discover their own lifestyles.”

 

The 2010 Display involved seven elevated round structures, creating 15 different universes. (“You know that Nature abhors straight lines!”)  Dividers “were created for the decorative podiums and each division was personalized with colourful panels offering different layouts with an illusion of depth, plenty of exciting colour, texture, material.”

 

Marquis tile & fireplaces

"High Hopes"

 

Retailers who pay attention, boast showrooms described as “stunning, cool, top-notch”. The showrooms of Marquis Tile and Marquis Fireplaces make a lasting impression. Once again in the city of Windsor, Rose and Bernie Gneo could not be more optimistic.  “You need positive thinking.  You wait it out, you tighten your belt, and you make the best of each day.  And, yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel!”  Rose believes that “transformation is the theme for the next decade, a change in consumer behavior.  They’re not as freewheeling and fancy free, so we are more careful in our decision-making.  Consumers are working harder and smarter.  It’s a huge change.  In the past, it’s been spend, spend, spend.  Things can only get better and look up!

 

“Here we have the automotive industry, and it’s been surreal for many people. Although it (the downturn) was happening, I don’t think they could believe it until the factory doors were actually padlocked.  People from management lost their jobs and were laying tiles for a living.  Citizens are moving into 2010 with hope, but circumspectly.

 

“We’re environmentally friendly at Marquis.  We use recycled tile, cork and bamboo. Electric fireplaces have no emissions and all the heat stays in the home, none goes up the chimney.  With gas or wood, 10 to 30 per cent goes straight up the chimney.  Electric is also cheaper, eight cents per hour, but up to 25 cents an hour for gas.

 

“Now and, I believe, 10 years down the way, we’re destined to reinvent ourselves.  We sell accessories now as well, Michael Aram, internationally known designer from India, pieces in aluminum or bronze.  And wonderful accent pieces from Canadian artists. We are urging our customers to reflect their personalities in their homes.  We’re still cocooning, in fact it’s increasing exponentially, people focusing on the comfort and beauty of their homes both indoors and out.  They’re spending less on vacations but enjoying a vacation every night when they come home from work!

 

“By 2020 we will have moved away from cars into other forms of technology and into health care.  We have our own unique place on the map, we’re a border city, our climate is wonderful, we’re 20 minutes from everywhere, we have a beautiful waterfront.  High hopes and a lot of confidence!” 

 

Guaranteed A Fine Furniture

"Scaled down  spaces for 2010

 

At Guaranteed A Fine Furniture, strategic thinking is part of the Vennettilli family’s tradition.  Richard, the eldest, works with brothers Tony and Danny.  Father Aldo and mother Maria both still “come in sometimes” to the 50,000 square foot store. Richard is planning five, then 10 years in advance.  “People will come out of the doldrums, will understand quality and will reinvest in better quality.  Designs will last a lot longer, there will be an architectural look in furniture.  Canadian companies have become very aggressive in their styling, ‘life spaces’ allow you to create a custom sofa in leather or fabric by changing the arm or back or cushions in different detail.  Keeps costs down and production is quicker

 

“We definitely prefer to shop Canadian or North American suppliers because of the ability to custom order, and the quickness of receiving product.

“Right now we do not use radio, but we do use television.  We try to convey the flavour of style, rather than particular product lines.  In print, we do use newspaper and, of course, the newspaper is on Internet as well.  Magazines are useful, too; we use different media to create different sensations.

 

“In our projections, Internet will be more of a factor; we will go that way somewhat.  I don’t like to sell on the Internet, but I do feel it’s the venue to solicit, to advertise.  While buying a pair of shoes, one needs to touch and feel... just like furniture!  You can’t buy fit or feel on the Internet.  Brick and mortar stores are important, especially when you are dealing with quality furniture.  People will look at things on the computer and the computer will send them to the actual location.

 

“We believe that overall the economy will get stronger, although perhaps not as strong as it once was.  Spending will improve for furniture and other commodities.  As people get a bit older, their home will become more important, they will entertain more.”  (Richard agrees with Rose Gneo on the subject of cocooning!)  “We’re back to the cocoon.  People will travel some, but the house will be the centre of activity.

 

“I have already been preparing for people scaling down from $500,000 houses to $400,000 condos.  Space will of course change, from larger to smaller.  There are coffee tables with storage, that turn into a bed, that are designed for laptops or that rise to dining tables.  There will be computer armoires, things that are more functional.”  See Richard’s website: www.gfurniture.ca.

 

And forward-thinking Richard agrees with Pierre and Andre about trends, “Timeless, clean, simple lines, splashing colours as accents in toss pillows and accessories.  Colours on walls, easy to change paint, artwork, vibrant rugs, change the whole look!”

 

2010 and the decade to come present a different dynamic, a rapidly changing scene. In surfers’ parlance, it’s choosing the right wave.  And the right board to ride!

 


Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.

View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone

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