Settlement House has evolved over the decades from Country to current boomer, casual and traditional trends.
Nostalgia's in the wind these days, and if you are north of the forty-ninth parallel and June breezes and your history bump beckon, take a scenic drive to old Port Perry. It's a charming little town, nestled on the shores of picturesque Lake Scugog, about an hour east of what's now known as the Greater Toronto Area.
Escapees from city hustle and bustle 20 plus years ago, Daphne and Tom Mitchell succumbed to the appeal of a century old Victorian building on the town's main street. The couple rented a 600 square foot space and within six months they bought the entire building. "It was just at the beginning of the recession," Daphne told me. "There had been a 1950's makeover that had to go, angelstone brick all across the bottom of the building. We had it stripped and chemically washed, then reinforced the pillars and re-faced with wood. The building is on a hill, so the back is really on ground level. We built out the back, had a tremendous increase in business and outgrew our space before we finished building.
"We bought a lot of clearance housewares and called our temporary operation, since it was Christmas time, St. Nick's Bargain Basement, and sold $50,000 of product!"
There are three unique shops, a total of 12,000 square feet on two levels, From My Heart, a Hallmark Gold Crown Shop, Affordables, linens, gourmet food and kitchen accessories "at prices that warrant the name", and Settlement House which features home furnishings, accessories, candles and soft goods.
Settlement House has evolved over the decades from "Country to current boomer, casual and traditional trends". Featured within the space are room settings with a full range of appropriate gift accents where customers are encouraged to sit and peruse catalogues for fabrics and accessory merchandise, lighting, rugs, accent pieces and linens. "These vignettes help gift purchasers to visualize accent giftware in home settings. Coordinated feature displays are composed utilizing color blocking, complementary merchandise and ideas for creative gift giving and decorating to encourage multiple purchases. This is particularly useful to customers who want to purchase multiple gifts for their home or for brides."
The shops' original lighting layout was designed by a professional lighting consultant and features a back-lit skylight. To enhance room settings, ambient florescent lighting and track lighting hilites were installed. And there are ample windows at both the front and the back of the stores.
Amongst other great merchandising devices are the permanent signed close out corners in each store which help combat the buildup of slow moving merchandise. "This creates a traffic pattern through the store to the back corners. And it attracts an additional range of price point conscious customers."
Daphne acknowledges that one of their challenges is "to attract sufficient qualified customers to visit our retail complex. But once we get people here we have no trouble getting them to come back."
Support has been generated through several marketing strategies. "High impact in-store presentation of better quality merchandise and the offering of sound value and superior customer service has helped us to culture a growing following of customers through the evolution of our business. Many children of our original customers have become regular customers today."
The Mitchell's sophisticated systems help. "Our computerized accounting, sales and inventory reporting system tracks detailed sales performance, inventory control and gross profit generation within our product mix. These systems also assist us in managing our employee pay incentives, advertising and promotion and day to day operating costs based on actual performance versus plan.
"We have also established beneficial relationships with our suppliers. Our partnering approach with our suppliers and their reps with regard to product selection and supply has more than returned our continued investment in fair treatment and prompt payment."
Then there's competition from the immediate market area and the dominant Toronto retail industry. "We have learned to more than cope. Our major commitment to research of market trends and in depth investment in inventory categories, offers our customers an attractive selection of products while discouraging competitors who are less focused or informed. When we select a market niche, we try to do it better than anyone rather than trying to do it all. In addition, we create an ambiance within our store that has for years attracted day trippers from far and wide in preference to other shopping alternatives. Many local residents show our business with pride to visiting friends and relatives.
"Our direction in pursuing the basic concepts of our business is focused. We have achieved continued sales growth every year over two decades of operation."
Promotions and related advertising have been key to development of a consistent image. Since 1982, "to kick off and encourage Christmas buying", an annual Open House has heralded Port Perry's season. Daphne has utilized television, radio, a glossy national publication, Century Home, which is perfect for her message, in store flyers, local and regional newspapers, highway signing, (can't have customers getting lost along the way!), direct mail, building banners and an Internet page. Christmas is fun at the Settlement House Shops with professional guitarists or flautists creating just the right mood and, of course, spectacular seasonal decorations.
Ads maintain the ambiance with Victorian flair even to the use of antique fonts.
In June, the Longest Day of the Year Sale, which runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., is a 12 hour event with major markdowns and special purchases throughout the stores, in the big on site car park and in their tent. It's the major clearance event and is "held to liquidate inventory in anticipation of upcoming trade shows". Hundreds of people happily line up from 6:30 a.m. Throughout the day, there are successive markdowns. "This generates frenzied buying and a lot of fun for all!" Advertising again is done through television, Century Home, in store flyers, direct mail, banners, newspapers, signing and the Internet page and, perhaps most important of all, word of mouth. "Repeat customers phone us to inquire about the date of this event."
There's also a Boxing Week Sale to clear seasonal merchandise and persuade customers to spend their cash Christmas gifts. For this Daphne uses local papers, signs and banners.
"We support all local promotions, take an active part and support some of them financially." These promotions range from the June Business Improvement Association's Midnight Madness and Sailing into Summer events, (Daphne and Tom helped found the BIA nine years ago), the Chamber of Commerce's Canada Day and Festival Days in July, BIA again with their Fall Fest in October and Magic of Christmas in November and, a must, the Chamber of Commerce's Santa Claus Parade, also in November. The feeling of community is strong. Owners and staff members all live in the area and both monetary donations and
hours are spent working with other citizens. Settlement House takes sole sponsorship of a yearly performance at the local Town Arts Centre, contributes to the library through their mechanical riding horse proceeds and sponsorship of the library's art gallery advertising, the hospital, minor sports and tournaments, the local cancer drive, the pioneer museum, the YWCA, local women's shelters and many, many other good works.
Daphne has lots of strategies designed to enhance customer loyalty. Her frequent buyer Candle Club works wonders. "To encourage repeat visits to our store," says a customer letter, we give all our furniture customers a certificate enabling them to receive a Yankee Candle Jar of their choice. This certificate is given at the time of delivery or pick up of the furniture item." A card thanks customers for their recent purchases, and invites them to visit again and receive their gift.
To reach and cultivate new customers, Daphne organizes drop off of a store introduction and event calendar at new subdivisions, supports tour buses and appears in tourist guide books as well as all the other more conventional approaches.
She believes in investing in staff. Competitive salaries, fringe benefit programs and incentives through performance are top of the list and training is considered vital. "Our staff is directed by full time Managers and Supervisors with specific area responsibilities. Part time staff are trained in our store's culture and their activities are closely directed to compliment our overall plan." There are regularly scheduled staff meetings, newsletters and bulletins for communication of plans and priorities. Sales incentive games are run frequently to additionally motivate staff, for example the best sale of the weekend, and a prize for selling slow moving larger ticket items. Employees are recognized by awards at the annual Christmas staff party, Employee of the Year, Sales Performance, Employee Suggestion of The Year.
Managers of From My Heart and Affordables, Cathy Palladino and Donna Cultrera, are special treasures. Cathy, endowed with "tremendous organizational skills", was a Settlement House customer while still a buyer at Sear's. One day she asked if there was a place for her in the retail family, and has been a productive member ever since. "Donna has been with me for eight wonderful years. Her parents had been customers of mine and so was she."
The Mitchells have learned not to deviate from the principles of good management. "The recession was one of our biggest challenges. Rather than cut back we decided to meet the challenges head on. We remained committed to selection, advertising and quality of display, focused on price point promotions and intensified staff training and customer service. The benefits of that strategy are still being reaped now. We found ourselves better positioned for business as the economy recovered."
Daphne and Tom have "a wonderful time with the business". Two daughters, Alison and Christina are also involved. Their wholesale distribution company, Old Port Marketing, provides an edge over most other retailers of their size, and gives the couple an opportunity to travel the world in search of marketable goodies.
Friends and business associates were not too surprised when the Settlement House Shops won the Eastern Canada Retailer of the Year award. Organized by the national Canadian Gift and Tableware Association and judged by five industry experts from a field of 500 nominations, the criteria for the awards are visual presentation, business achievements, advertising and promotions, community involvement, quality of nomination package and credit standing. The CGTA represents more than 1,500 companies involved in manufacturing, distributing, importing and exporting.