Retailer uses light and entertaining radio commercial format to promote a “Shop?North America”, environmental and quality message.
Furniture Trends by Janet Holt-Johnstone
“Can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about you,” said the morning show host. “There’s a lot different about us at Conway Furniture... like quality,” answered retailer Paul Dekker.
This is a relatively serious segment of a sprightly dialogue-format commercial featured on Radio Station CHYM fm / 570 NEWS (CKGL). Paul and host have been “chatting” on a regular basis for several years now. CHYM is "not comfortable" with ad lib pieces and prefers an edited script. Other stations are more relaxed, like CKNX fm and am, Wingham, and CHKOOL fm, Kitchener, and, said Paul, "the commercials are much more fun".
Informal, often funny, always memorable, Paul’s present and future customers look forward to hearing Conway commercials. “On a rotten, cold morning driving to work, snow flying, slippery conditions, a thousand things on your mind, Paul actually makes me smile!” confided one of his Listowel customers.
Where’s Listowel? It’s a town of 5,476, “with lots of subdivisions”, situated in Perth County, Ontario, Canada, officially settled in 1902 and incorporated during the amalgamation of several other communities in 1998. Listowel is named after a town in County Kerry, Ireland, even though a majority of the early settlers were Scottish and from a variety of European countries. For history buffs, the story begins earlier than 1902. It was back in January 1852 that John Binning bought wilderness land rights from a squatter named Henry for a rifle, and kicked off the chain of events that created the now bustling community.
Conway Furniture came into being in 1968 when partners Peter Dekker and Jim Mulholland, while installing carpet in Listowel, saw an empty storefront in the downtown area. In a surge of entrepreneurial spirit they began by retailing and continuing to install carpeting, then added some furniture to fill up floor space.
Conway was Mulholland’s mother’s maiden name, specifically chosen for its lack of ethnicity. Within three years, Peter and Jim opened two more stores, one in nearby Kincardine, the second in Hanover. In 1972, Peter bought out Jim and conceived a major change in strategy, closing the branch stores and erecting a brand new building on Conway’s present site, Highway 86 east of Listowel.
The new store’s product mix was expanded to include appliances as well as carpeting, flooring and furniture, and Peter rented warehousing space. Two major additions were made over the next 15 years, more retail space and on-site warehousing.
Paul, Peter’s son, today’s owner and radio personality, joined the company in his teens, working part-time while completing his education. “I have a science degree,” he told us. “I studied physics at University of Waterloo. After three years, I decided to make a change and took some business courses. As a teenager I had wondered what I was doing in Listowel, and wanted to broaden my horizons and make my fortune elsewhere. But then I realized that there was a good family business behind me.” He returned to Listowel, his father happily retired, and Paul hasn’t looked over his shoulder for a minute.
But back to radio. “We did a remote a few years ago here at the store, using an announcer from the station. Some of our customers said, ‘I heard your ad, and I hated it!’ Of course I answered, ‘Well, you heard it at least!’ But it made me think and reconstruct.
“For eight years now I’ve voiced our own commercials. We’ve made them light and entertaining, a dialogue between me and the host of the morning show, ad libbing at the studio. We started in one station, now we run in seven stations in the region. It works really well in a rural area like this. We can get our messages across.
“In our geographic area, there are 20 different small newspapers, increasingly expensive with less return, and certainly bad from the environmental point of view. Print is just not as successful for us as investing in effective radio.
“Flyers, too, are a tough nut, although we still do them. There’s so much competition. We are part of the Mega Group, and we’re involved in a flyer a month for three months.
“On television (A-Channel) we appear every week of the year to benefit from bonus inventory given to those who do this, and we’re on CKCO-TV (Kitchener/Waterloo) three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall. The ads are the same for both stations. They’re geared around in-store promotions. Late spring business has been eroded by home and garden, but March and April are still effective.”
When Paul began full time with Conway in 1985, he opened a Factory Clearance Center, closed about 18 months later when construction was completed on his “Gallery” addition, focusing on vignette merchandising and decorating. Full day-to-day operations were turned over to Paul by his father during the late ‘80s. The Gallery was converted to a La-Z-Boy Gallery in 1994 and remains a “Comfort Studio” today.
In 1990, electronics were added to the product mix, and appliances were dropped. Then in 2004, Paul dropped electronics to “focus on our key strengths in furniture, upholstery and flooring at mid-price point. Appliances and electronics are fields of their own. Leave them to the Future Shops of the world!”
An independent, medium sized store at 30,000 square feet, Conway has “large enough volume to competitively deal with the larger chain stores, our reach from Kitchener towards Lake Huron, and from Mount Forest towards Mitchell, then up as far as Goderich and Port Elgin. Our strength is the Highway 8 and 9 corridor,” said Paul, “the shoreline of Lake Huron. Our demographic targeting is more to the second time or more mature buyers, the average income consumer from 35 to seniors”. Conway is a fashion store, the slogan, “Today’s home trends embraced under one roof”.
Penny Evans, Paul’s sister, is an important part of Conway’s action, particularly involved in store and room design. They’re a happy team.
An area of great concern to Paul is the heavy and omnipresent Asian flood of merchandise directed to the North American marketplace. It’s a frequent topic discussed in Conway’s radio commercials. And the entire back page of a brochure produced to celebrate the store’s fortieth anniversary was devoted to the dilemma. The text is entitled “Shop North America”, and goes on to comment, “Today, much of the furniture you see is made in places like China, Indonesia and soon Africa. Cheap labour and lax environmental laws make these the places of choice for high profit seeking manufacturers.
Make no mistake, these products do not compare with the products built in North America.
“If you are looking for quality furniture that will stand the test of time, North America is still the source. From Ontario upholstery manufacturers like Décor-Rest and Superstyle to solid wood dining suites from Quebec’s Canadel and solid bedroom furniture from Indiana’s Mobel, quality is always in fashion.
“Supporting our own manufacturing sector and having heirloom quality pieces is a win, win scenario and, as competition makes our manufacturers more and more efficient, the value gets better and better. Let us show you the difference.”
In one recent radio commercial, Paul’s excellent voice can be heard warning, “There’s a lot of low quality imported furniture out there these days, more glue than wood, and we think people are getting sick of it,” straight talk to a real problem. “You can’t beat solid wood, handcrafted in North America.
“Part of the difficulty arises because there are no standards or restrictions on wood finishing and leather tanning in Asia and South America. I wonder how many people out there are aware of how much crap is being used in the tanning process! Of course, hide is renewable, a plus factor, but how about the tanning process? And with casegoods, how about the finishes being used over there?
“Our North American manufacturers are seeing the light. Brentwood, for instance, is using soy foam now in its upholstery cushioning. And Mobel owns managed forest reserves themselves.”
Take the time to look at Conway’s evolving website, www.conwayfurniture.com. “We’re on line, but we don’t sell on line at this point, maybe in the future. Allyourfurniture.com, a web company assisting the industry, created our site, and we have store personnel managing it. And we’re focusing on it more and more. We use it as a marketing tool to interest the consumer and entice them into our store.”
Prizes are offered on the web. At the 40th anniversary and on holidays, consumers will see offers of free throw blankets with selected sofas, and free sheets, pillows and mattress pads with sleep systems. And their site is used for holiday messages and store hours as well as announcements of special sales.
“We regard ourselves as the liaison between the manufacturer and the consumer. We go to bat for the customer with grey areas in warranties, for example. Even for problems that crop up after three years on one-year warranties. If, for instance a fabric's wearing badly, if it were in our own house we wouldn’t be pleased with it.
“In the less populated areas, you must work to bring people back. We price everything with all taxes included, offer free delivery, free set up and free removal of old furniture or bedding. And we don’t tack on things. The price they see is the price they get.
“We work to increase the average sale. Our store is very well accessorized; we know that people are eager to decorate their homes. We used to send out sales associates to homes, but discovered that after the experience, some customers were not particularly loyal. They didn’t necessarily value the home visit and would still go out and price shop.
“But this has been counteracted with the room planner on our website. We encourage customers to work with this and email the result to us and we’ll work with the result in the store. And they send us photos, too. When customers walk into the store, we use the room planner with them and it really does work very well. People like it!”
Customers find the room planner engaging and addictive, very easy to use, many opportunities to move things around and try different settings. It’s simple to measure distance, the size of the room(s), of individual pieces from spinet pianos to potted plants. A great sales tool!
The website offers links to other businesses and to the Listowel Chamber of Commerce of North County Kerry, an unexpected trip to Ireland. And there’s a well-structured tour of the store, too.
Looking to the future, Paul told us, “Creativity is our biggest market asset. We automated in the ‘80s and ‘90s and have a good flow of information that helps us to focus on business in transition and to look for the things that separate you from your competition where creativity will be important. It’s a step by step process, to have and to provide information wherever you want it, however you want it.”
A family man, Paul and his wife, Kristina, once a public health nurse, have two boys, Mitchell 16 and Harrison 14. He played keyboard and was soundman for a recent cantata at the church. With his band, he’s involved in charity work for the local hospital and the annual Irish “Paddyfest”, held over the two weeks surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, maintained by the Kinsmen and Kinettes of Listowel.