90 year old retailer finds success by staying close to home.
A great deal of targeted vision and solid hard work has gone into the planning of the celebration of the 90th anniversary of Critelli’s Furniture. Cool, competent Joseph Critelli, namesake of the founder, his great-grandfather, was raised in the aura and aesthetics of the business.
The first Joseph, as an assertive, energetic young man in the early 1900s, immigrated to the then and now bustling Niagara Region of southern Ontario. A contractor, he was hired to help create the vast new hydroelectric projects at the Falls on both sides of the border between Canada and the United States. Joseph brought his own workers with him from Italy and the team thrived on their accomplishments. He raised a large, happy family and made the decision to put down roots and call Canada home.
In those days it was customary for successful men to set their children up in business. Son Thomas H. Critelli’s opportunity knocked in 1914 when the family’s first retail store was opened in the town of Thorold, originally selling groceries and hardware. But Thomas’ Italian creativity and design interests turned him in the direction of fine furniture and, by 1936, the store was thriving. Together with his younger brother, Frank, he opened a second store in Niagara Falls.
But the Thorold store remained Thomas’ focus. The area was flourishing. There was an exciting construction boom along the busy Welland Canal that complemented the optimism of Canadian expansion.
In 1939, in keeping with Joseph’s vision, Thomas opened a third store in downtown St. Catharines. The enterprise grew rapidly and, after a few years, Thomas sold the Thorold store to employees so he might concentrate on St. Catharines.
His son, Thomas Joseph, Joe’s father, joined him in the business in 1946. By 1961, there were four showrooms and an on-site warehouse and expansion was vital. By 1963, the King Street store was built, the Niagara Falls location closed and “everything came together under one roof”.
Joe, our modern day hero, “still remembers the early days of the store. It was truly a family business, for my father worked in the store and raised a family of six kids. I have wonderful memories of those times. We all had a taste of the business early in our lives, participating in every aspect. My grandfather enjoyed the business tremendously and worked until he was 89!”
Business strategies were different in the beginning. Joe’s grandfather bought from many suppliers, “a little from a lot of people”. His father preferred to build solid relationships with a selected number of key suppliers.
Joe joined the company in 1980, his sister, Misette, in 1989, the third generation of Critellis. At university, Joe had become disenchanted with theory and “found I enjoyed the actuality of business more”. In 1989 he took over ownership and because he believes the furniture marketplace is always changing, Joe now shops the global marketplace. There is emphasis on buying good domestic product lines, but he also deals regularly with suppliers from all over the world to “allow customers to personalize every purchase.
“Today we’re not interested in watching or following trends. We like to set the stage for new design and new style. Much of what we sell today is custom-ordered, handcrafted for our clients. We specialize in helping the customer find exactly what they’re looking for within the budget they’re comfortable with.”
In 2002, as part of his search for new ways to meet customer needs, Joe opened a second St. Catharines store called Transitions, just around the corner from traditional home base. Sister Misette, with her husband Brian Cunningham, manage Transitions, “telling a new story in a new way” with contemporary flair.
At Critellis, “Fine Furniture Since 1914”, the family works with time-honoured suppliers such as Gibbard Furniture Shops of Napanee, itself founded in 1830, “proud to be a part of Critelli’s success since their inception in 1914”, and Barrymore Furniture, in business with Critelli for 60 years.
Interior designer Frank D’Angelo has outstanding knowledge of fine wood collections. He became a part of Critelli’s design team in 1979. As well as Gibbard’s beautiful 18th century bedrooms, dining rooms and occasional furniture, Frank talked about West Brothers, Dinec, Hickory White, Stanley, Lexington, Hekman, Sherrill and Maitland Smith, pieces to “appeal to all tastes”.
Frank favours front hall furniture since it “sets the mood for the rest of the house. If you have a hall suitable for showing off something special, that’s where you start.” His design philosophy involves asking questions of the customer to determine what will reflect the lifestyle of each person, specific tastes, preferences for classic traditional, period or contemporary. He makes home visits and often draws floor plans to ensure no awkward surprises when the furniture arrives.
Just as Frank loves to work with fine woods, his colleague, designer Michael van Hartingsveldt, is enchanted with the variety and availability of thousands of fabrics and leathers in upholstered furniture at Critellis. His professional expertise is based on 30 years in the trade, 11 of them spent with Critellis. He deals with Barrymore, “3000 fabrics alone!” as well as leathers from Bradington-Young, Our House and Hancock & Moore. Well represented are Jessica Charles, Cox and Henredon. Michael also goes to customers’ homes. “Seeing the way they live and the use made of the room helps determine the right upholstery choice. Whether the room is a formal reception room, a family room, a bedroom or even a home office, all have different requirements for durability, texture and pattern.”
Deanna Cross and Roxanne Parise are also members of the design team. “For 90 years,” said Deanna, “Critelli’s has offered the finest accessories on the market; we know your rooms won’t feel like home until you’ve added finishing touches.”
Accessories are coming in constantly, art, sculpture, mirrors, clocks, screens, lamps, pottery and accent furniture from houses such as Austin, Theodore Alexander, Maitland Smith, Frederick Cooper, Wildwood and Ashford.
And the “delivery guys”, vital members of the team, are appreciated by customers and receive many accolades. Tyrell Hurley, Jeremy Hayes, Scott Rankin, Kevin Herring and Robert Killian are all to be commended!
Over at Transitions, the philosophy of expert, attentive service is as vital to Misette and Brian as it is to Joe. They’ve had a few surprises. “When the store first opened, we thought it would attract a younger market, those busy young professionals and young couples who want the simplicity and more casual flair that contemporary furniture often provides.” And they were right, but “The store has also attracted a wider demographic group, people who have enjoyed modern contemporary style for 30 or 40 years, and they relish the vast selection now available in this one store.” Amongst the many customers who praise Transitions are Dr. and Mrs. John Palmer. They wrote, “The Critelli Family and staff of Transitions knew immediately and exactly what we were hoping to achieve. They dedicated a great deal of time, effort, expertise and, ultimately, the look we had in mind . . . all within the budget and timeframes which they promised. Transitions is the perfect place to shop for those who have downsized their homes. We will continue to be loyal customers.”
Said Misette, “We don’t share a space with traditional furniture so customers can get the feel of the whole picture, the styles, the colours and new trends all in one place. Here’s where you see the future, timeless style for the 21st century, a collection of furniture creatively arranged in crisp architectural settings where it’s easy to visualize how it will look in your home.” They have “placed” furniture in four main categories, classic, modern, contemporary and transitional, and their suppliers, Leda, Vanguard, Lind, Precedent, Cameleon, Kiorson and Legacy do them proud.
Doris Fraser and Melanie Dressel, both interior designers with lengthy professional experience, help Misette and Brian to carry on the Critelli approach to special ordering and custom orders. Said Doris, “Contemporary is of the time. Function before form. Form is clean lines, more machine craftsmanship rather than handcrafted art. Contemporary is simpler, uncluttered. Styles changed when people no longer had servants to polish and dust their beautiful furniture. Doing it themselves made them want less maintenance and smaller pieces of furniture.”
Brian added, “Smaller pieces are very much a sign of today. With the mobility inherent in modern culture and the transitional lifestyle of many families, their furniture has to be able to move with them and to fit into any room.”
“Size is also important to those people retiring from busy lifestyles and downsizing their homes,” said Melanie. “They still want to have beautiful things around them but they want them on a smaller scale to fit into the decreased size in today’s town homes and condominiums.”
Joe feels that Critelli’s “secret of success” is what it has always been, “giving the customers what they are looking for. We specialize in fine home furnishings, traditional or contemporary, we are customer service oriented, customer driven. We are proud to associate the family name with everything we sell. As the years go by, we tend to see a lot of retailers becoming more and more nameless with the advent of the big box stores, and customers see service deteriorating and the retailers’ pride becoming diluted. That will never happen at Critelli’s.
“You are only as important as the last room you helped furnish. The challenge is to develop relationships with our clients, our level of concern. It goes beyond the selling of furniture. Very often we make visits to the customers’ homes and find out what’s different about their family, then bring them a collection of opportunities best suited to their needs, their lifestyle.”
We asked Joe for hints and tips for his fellow retailers. “Key for everyone, family and staff, is to treat all the people who come into your business, customers or vendors, in the manner in which you expect to be treated. Be very much ‘hands-on’. Think carefully before opening new locations; open a new store within your store! Transitions is only a block away from Critelli’s and my sister and brother-in-law are involved there. The family is looking out for the customers’ best interests at all times!”
The future? “Very optimistic! All indications are that we’re going to see the home furnishings market becoming more and more important to families. There’s greater emphasis on making the home special. This indicates a very strong future for stores in home furnishings.
“And our Niagara region is the fastest growing area in Ontario, the casinos, the agri-tourism, the boutique wineries. Six hundred thousand people follow the wine route every year. Torontonians now look at Niagara as their backyard, their playground. There’s a great opportunity for ongoing success.”
Critelli’s reach extends beyond its natural geographic area to up-state New York, to British Columbia, to the Maritime provinces and to the coast of North Carolina. “We recently sent a container of furniture to a happy and satisfied customer in Belgium! People now travel farther to find the restaurant they love. They’re beginning to do the same thing for home furnishings. Our time will come!”
Joe believes in promotion and there are multiple imaginative activities surrounding the anniversary of their 90th year, one of them an attractive, expansive 12-page broadsheet which Joe says will have a distribution of “50,000 in better neighbourhoods in the Niagara region and another 50,000 in better neighbourhoods from Hamilton to Oakville”. This venture received extraordinary supplier support and was filled with customer testimonials.
Next target? “2104 and still growing!”
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