Renate Karger is racking up the sales in a small footprint store by creating a unique brand and an innovative shopping experience.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone
“The decision not to buy is logical. The decision to buy is emotional.”
Furniture Trends by Janet Holt-Johnstone
Imagine an enchanted village at the confluence of two rivers emerging from the shifting mists of time. A romantic, craggy gorge, waterfalls, rapids, and lush green spaces conjure up A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe Brigadoon.
Stretch a bit more and picture a 150 year old mews, a stone’s throw from Elora, Ontario’s historic grist mill, transformed a couple of decades ago into an up-market hostelry. Originally crafted by Scottish stonemasons, the limestone mews now surrounds a cobblestone courtyard fringed by an attractive and eclectic handful of shops, boutiques and studios. Karger Gallery occupies a dominant position, curving around the end of the mews. Enter at peril of your pocketbook!
“Bedazzled!” was the over-the-top-exclamation of an Israeli tourist recently as she staggered from The Gallery laden with many shopping bags, “An oasis of earthly delights!” She left Renate Karger completing a shipping invoice to Tel Aviv for a unique table and chairs.
Flooded with natural light from floor to ceiling windows, there are 2600 square feet of eccentric retail space on several carefully structured levels to explore, each devoted to the display of irresistible treasure. Profit pockets abound, high-end one-of-a-kind casegoods in juxtaposition with readily affordable wooden place mats, stone coasters and hand thrown pottery.
Greeting cards are around the corner and up the stairs from provocatively displayed designer/ballerina Olga Saras’ hand-knit shawls and jackets. Out of the ordinary jewelry, some Renate’s own design, are positioned on and within the central counter and backing display cases, as well as dangling from the occasional piece of sculpture elsewhere. Silk cushions from Minerva, woven blankets from Kennybunkport, minimalist upholstery from Canadian manufacturer, Romano, unique metallic chairs from local artist/sculptor Sarie Marais. Turn another corner and there are rosewood Sheesham occasional tables from India. Look up and be captured by C & I’s top designer Kenneth Cobonpue’s stunning lighting. All of which keeps the customer in the store, moving from one space to another, never leaving the gallery without making a purchase, some large, some small. “Well, hardly ever!”
It takes insight, instinct, talent, creativity, financial savvy and chutzpah to perceive and exploit a promising niche not yet adequately served in the essence of circa 2008. Then to take it and flow with the prevailing winds to build a positive, productive yet flexible entity.... something else again.
Renate Karger saw indicators 15 years ago. Unlike many more cautious entrepreneurs, those who conceive a concept then quietly gestate for months or years, Renate jumped feet first into action. A corporate franchise consultant working across Canada, she left the bandwagon in 1992, and spent a year developing her skills as a watercolourist. When her work was not given wall space by a less perceptive gallery owner in Stratford in 1993, Renate opened her own gallery at Elora. “I chose the area because of the beauty, nature, the Elora Gorge, the tranquil, historic village, the existing and growing arts community. My soul comes to life in a little village.
“It was to be an all original gallery, showing my own paintings and leasing wall space to 14 others. Shortly after, I expanded to include handcrafted iron and contemporary wood furniture.
“The mews location just happened. There was a tiny spot available in the courtyard. It was and is a prime location in the village of Elora. (Central to London, Hamilton and Toronto, Ontario, and all the surrounding bedroom communities, an hour to an hour and a half drive to the cities, and a popular heritage tourist destination.) I had 650 square feet at first. I moved to the centre of the mews when a two-storey space became available, 450 square feet on the bottom, 350 on the top! Sales skyrocketed! Then the space next door became available and we now had about 1,300 square feet. A year later, that was too small, so I leased more space next door for a total of 2,600 square feet.
“Placement and merchandising are amongst the most important things in creating sales. The greeting cards are on the mezzanine because customers enjoy reading them and like the private space. It also avoids traffic jams on busy days. The jewelry and clothes are near the counter to avoid shrinkage and to provide immediate assistance.
“Our ‘Canadian’ room only displays original artwork and one of a kind furniture. We try to avoid clutter in this room, and focus on larger more dramatic pieces such as the marvellous C & I ball lamps, accompanied by Juta’s original canvas from SoHo, New York, or Tim Murton’s dramatic water series, oversized paintings of the Elora Gorge and river rock. And to complement these we’re featuring a Koletic root* dining table, showered in felt rocks by Ronnel Jordaan, of South Africa.” Renate emphasized, “This room is my creation without thinking of what customers will buy.” But her instinct is bang on.
“There are definitely hot spots for pick up items. For example, our potter, Paul Stewart, brought in a basket of beautiful hand made pots retailing for $6.95 to be used for sauces, trinkets, anything. Before he left, he said please place these near the counter and they will sell themselves. It wasn’t two minutes after our appointment ended that someone came in and bought six of these little pots. The same thing works with anything interesting enough to pick up.
“A store owner must walk the floor and study the patterns as customers wander in. Watch which direction they turn, where do they stop and what do they miss. The floor space must have flow or else areas will be missed either by not being enticing enough to walk towards, or the flow of traffic gets jammed up and the customer turns and walks in the opposite direction. It’s all carefully thought out. At times I get tired of keeping the flow the same way, and I try to change things. Usually, we go back to the way things were,” she laughs. “But this doesn’t mean the store looks the same. We change things all the time, and not out of boredom but out of a constant change in inventory.”
She talked demographics. There are both immutables and variables. “Recently we’ve had more local customers,” Renate explained, “Like the three bears. We must carry pieces that are attractive to mama bear, papa bear and baby bear. I let the young people buying their first home, just starting out, put things on layaway. Then there are the drop-in tourists who want souvenirs of their visit; they buy lots of jewelry, sculpture, small items, but sometimes they surprise you with big things! And the retirees, beginning all over again, fresh from the big city, needing to furnish their heritage home or condo. They’re creating the ambience for their new lives, no children to consider.”
Dr. David Foot, Canadian economist and best selling author of “Boom, Bust and Echo”, accurately defined a new “immutable”. Boomers are leaving their city careers, or perhaps reconstructing their lifestyles. Increasingly they’re bolting concrete jungles to focus on old Ontario hamlets and villages originally settled in the early to mid 1800s. There’s an implicit lure in ancient stone and brick, structures that resonate with history, narrow streets and quiet neighbourhoods. Artists perceptively lead the exodus. There are many professional sculptors, musicians, painters, writers, potters, blacksmiths, glass blowers and weavers well established in rural Ontario, and they create their own happy ambience for new residents to share.
Canny local builders began to construct extensions to existing villages with, for the most part, well-planned developments, many single storey bungalows with pleasant garden areas, on winding roads. Almost in the centre of Elora, a tasteful bungalow/condo apartment complex, Station Square, occupies the site of the former train terminal.
More than 25 years ago, the Elora Singers mounted an annual professional summer Festival now of international renown, attracting classical and jazz stars who, in turn, attract a flood of visitors, some of whom stay permanently. A. J. Casson, one of Canada’s Group of Seven painters, spent years here capturing the landscape, and his spirit lives on at the Centre for the Arts, an 1850s public school now transformed into galleries where exhibitions and concerts are ongoing.
A perfect and completely logical setting for Renate’s concept for the Karger Gallery. A burgeoning boomer population of affluent new residents, and an established community of older retirees from the surrounding universities and businesses. Then the tourists, “Thirty per cent of them from overseas. Some of them come back regularly; they have relatives here to visit, or they just enjoy the region”. And day trippers, bus loads from the United States, southwestern Ontario, and all the surrounding cities.
“It took five years to become profitable. In a tourist destination, it was about finding the right merchandise mix. You need a balance of high ticket and small pick up items that visitors can walk away with.”
If you are wondering how Renate manages her suppliers and inventory, of course there is a computer somewhere out of sight, behind the scenes in her 150-year-old building. “We have a retail system that keeps track of inventory. We can easily access quantities of our stock for a customer, but I confess that I’m the laughing stock of the industry because our system is still in dos. I’m having problems with printers reading the information, and this becomes extremely stressful when trying to print out mailing labels for open houses. But the system still works, and I’m too stubborn to change it. I don’t blink an eye when it comes to spending money on art or furniture for the gallery, but I don’t like to spend it on things that would actually make life easier!”
Renate does maintain a “huge” preferred customer list, particularly useful when it’s time to issue invitations for the annual Christmas party. “It’s usually the first week in December, and is a lot of fun. We love to entertain, so there is always lots of delicious food, live music and many artists milling about. This event is always very well attended, but expensive to host. We usually just break even, but it is a service and it gets people talking. Our customers look forward to their creatively made invitations every year.”
And she uses e-mail to advertise the “Huge sale once a year, the week of Boxing Day.”
Renate is as “green” as it’s possible for her to be at this point in time. “I respect nature and human rights, and environmentally sustainable furniture is very important to me. Our wood products are all from reclaimed wood, old fallen trees or grown on government regulated plantations.
“Long before Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’, working in the art world you become more naturally sensitive to issues that affect our planet. You think and consume differently than most. I feel that if one is to buy material things they should last and be enjoyed for a long period of time. I am ashamed of how we humans abuse nature and take it for granted.
“Since part of our building is from the mid 1800s, we’ve conserved as much of the limestone as possible by incorporating it into the design of the gallery. For example, exposing some of the beautiful limestone walls and re-using the stone from our expansion. We found fossils of various creatures, and had them built into areas where our visitors could enjoy them. We’ve used old TV antennae as lighting fixtures, and re-used the tile previously in one of the rooms to create a mosaic with recycled glass. The floor in one of the rooms is re-used old pine boards.
“And with all the limestone walls, we save energy by not using air conditioning as often.
The Gallery’s handouts and the website speak to “shipping worldwide”. And, of course, a great deal of inventory is sent on a regular basis to Elora. “This is a small business and I find it best to split containers with someone.
Shipping overseas has become very costly. We used to foam pack glass and clay pieces so they would arrive safely. Now we are re-thinking the whole concept because the foam packing of the past was not biodegradable. Corn chips and re-used paper products are what we’re looking at. Shipping wood is the trickiest because you have to produce the papers from the woods’ origin and, to be honest, at times you can’t get your hands on these papers.
The furthest I receive from is Australia, our eco friendly and naturally antibacterial cutting boards. It can cost up to $700 for shipping 30 cutting boards by air. These are items you have to plan for far in advance, and ship by sea. Cuts the cost in half.”
Renate’s suppliers also include ION Designs and Ewest, fabrics from India, from Something Extra and “some from San Francisco”. David McCord, a Gallery regular since 1993, is “one of the few traditional blacksmiths in the area. Everything is hammered out by hand, never soldered. He masters everything from iron gates and amazing fences to wall mounted candle holders, bed frames, birdbaths and absolutely wonderful tables.” Like the steel-based, cherry-topped table made of two free form horizontal shapes with a spaced centre, covered by glass. An extraordinary conversation piece.
Sarie Marais “miraculously appeared”. Renate fell in love with her sculptures, amongst them tall, standing “guardians”, and immediately took them on consignment. Later, Sarie designed and produced 30 one of a kind metal chairs, a commission from Ottawa’s National Gallery now used in their atrium. Both guardians and chairs are popular with customers.
Gundi Viviani also appeared in 1993, “with her beautiful and fragile three foot glass sculptures made from hand cut window glass. They sold then for $375, now world wide, the same size, for no less than $2600-$3600. Most of the pieces we’ve sold have been shipped to the West Coast.”
Tim Murton is “another talented artist. A movie set designer, well known for more than 30 major box office movies. Tim’s passion is painting incredible oils of forest and trees and nature oriented scenes, semi modern in style yet very realistic. My best selling artist at the moment.” Civic minded and wildly whimsical, Tim conceived “Monster Month” in Elora, and Renate has worked with him on building the incredible wire and paper monsters which are mounted on buildings and illuminated at night.
Pottery comes from Victoria, B.C. by “a lovely man named Junichi Tanaka, originally from Japan. Porcelain is created by Pauline Pelletier of Quebec City”.
Renate says, “the majority of my buying comes from contacts at the gallery, some from art shows and word of mouth through other artists. It does work itself as an energy. On more than several occasions, I felt a need for something and within a short span of time it appeared at my door step.”
But some conventional buying is conducted in Toronto and New York, “furniture at the Toronto Furniture Show in January. I always attend to check on my existing upholstery suppliers.”
Many purchases are made from women’s co-operatives in Africa, Nepal, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. “When I first opened the gallery I was broke. One day a lovely couple from India came in and tried to sell me cashmere cushions. I loved them but couldn’t afford them. After an hour or so of chatting, they walked away with a post-dated cheque and I had delightfully handmade cushions to sell. Funny thing is they couldn’t cash my cheque because they didn’t have a Canadian bank account. Luckily they met a kind man who cashed it for them and became their lifetime friend. Fifteen years later, we’ve all come a long way. Ragu and Junkie are still my good friends and they are long time suppliers of Indian Sheesham furniture.”
Breakdown of profit bases is presently 25 per cent for furniture and lighting; art is 22 per cent; jewelry, 28 per cent; clothing, 1 per cent, porcelain/china/pottery, 3 per cent.
Renate’s marketing vision for the future includes ambitious but realizable plans to mount design workshops for David Foot-style boomer newcomers. And certainly others who would enjoy and benefit from such activities. The “how-tos” of home décor with other designers, placing special emphasis on individual expression. Others in the community could offer their expertise to the workshop mix, horticulturists, landscape, pond and swimming pool designers as well as real estate professionals who could provide leads to incoming residents.
“My next step is to purchase a building (preferably heritage!) in Elora where I can not only work, but live and create.”
The life of an independent retailer is not always simple, even one who has “found her niche”. A few days ago, a 40-inch Cobonpue ball lamp (a hanging fixture, eco-friendly of wire, papier-mache and resin) was delivered to the mews. Renate arrived just in time to receive it from the truck driver who then left. “I glanced at it and then the gallery door. It looked overwhelmingly large. I measured it. Forty inches. I measured the door, 36 inches. The truck has gone and I have this giant ball outside that needs to come in before it starts to rain. The damn thing wouldn’t fit. Here is a $1200 light fixture sitting outside and I can’t get it inside. Customers are now arriving at the mews in crowds, and I have this thing wedged in the front door. People start taking pictures and tourists become involved in the dynamics of getting it in. Bob, the ice cream man at the corner and I finally manage to remove the door and the frame and gently squash the lamp inside. But now, I realize, when I sell it I’ll have to go through the same process to get it out! OK, I know. Measurements and a bit of planning would have helped from the start. I was really beginning to think I might have to camp outside with this lamp!”
Renate Karger’s personal story is vintage John Le Carre. A short bio and can be found with the online version of this story on the furninfo.com website www.furninfo.com.
Developed by Renate Karger as an in-store or design workshop handout, a sidebar to feature articles or a mailer following television appearances.
1. Buy what you love and feel it is a part of your character.
2. Spend a little more for quality pieces, hand crafted with care. (You really do get what you pay for.)
3. Be careful with trendy colours when it comes to large pieces of furniture. Order the base in a solid or in textured neutrals, and add colour with removable cushions, draperies.
4. Stick to classic, clean lines.
5. Look for a firm, yet comfortable seat and backrest.
6. Avoid buying everything at once. Take your time, the right piece will make its way to you when you least expect it.
7. When looking through decorating magazines, mark or pull out everything of interest and keep in a storage box or binder.
8. Find out what colours make you happy. It does often relate with what colour clothing you feel good in.
9. Save for your favourite original piece of art. It will be well worth it. You will cherish it for a long period of time, and it does not have to be priced out of this world. Our local Canadian artists are talented and reasonable.
10. Collect interesting articles from your travels that tell a story about a place or person and mostly about you.
11. If your budget is tight, frequent scratch and dent sections in high-end retail stores and antique markets. Wood can always be re-polished for a fraction of what you’ll save.
12. Create your own style. Trends will come and go, but you are an individual with your own likes and dislikes that take many years to change.
13. Create balance between the elements, wood, stone, metal, with fire, water and fabric to soften the edges. Fire and water can be expressed with warm and cool tones.
14.Make the experience of buying your piece a good one.
Joie de vivre! A Short Bio Of Renate Karger
Renate Karger’s personal story is vintage John Le Carre, from Eastern Europe to rural Ontario. She was four years old, the only child of Jindra and Oldra Karger, when Russian tanks rolled down the streets in her native Czechoslovakia. Her father an engineer, her mother a draughtsperson, the family defected in 1968, first to Vienna, Austria. “Father was a good artist and he drew all kinds of things. What I remember most about Vienna is not the lack of food or money, but my father drawing paper dolls with all their clothes and accessories because I had no toys.”
Then came a move to South Africa. “We lived at Kempton Park, 25 minutes outside the city of Johannesburg. We have great memories of our seven years there.” It was probably during this period that Renate developed her appreciation for the drama and style of African creativity.
But there were concerns about apartheid, and when Oldra saw an ad for a job in Canada within his discipline, they were on the road again. The Kargers put down roots in Cambridge, Ontario, not far from Elora, where both parents re-established their careers. Renate breezed through elementary and high school “with great grades in art”, then studied retail management, business and interior design at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ontario.
Her early work experience provided a strong foundation for entrepreneurial activity. From two years as manager-in-training at Consumers’ Distributing, she shifted during the boom of the ‘80s to Windsor Knot in the corporate field, franchising retail stores as a consultant, conducting seminars all over Canada. “High end Signor Angelo and Madame Angelo stores, Italian accessories, jewelry, sweaters by well known designers. The franchise expanded too rapidly and I had the responsibility for closing all the stores in 1991. I learned a lot.”
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone