A shopping experience that fits products and services to both their customers' bodies and minds.
"It's kind of like a wedding dress. Maybe you should only have one of them!" quipped Dianne Gilpin. Ron Chaikin laughed.
Scene: a summer afternoon at the busy Toronto showroom of Expressions International, not couturiers but designers and importers of handcrafted Indonesian decorative accessories.
Cast: Dianne, tall, slender, blonde, vivacious, not a high fashion model but a home furnishings retailer and Ron, not Canada's answer to Calvin Klein, but Expressions' imaginative president.
The piece in question was a window mirror, straight from the pages of an exotic Somerset Maugham South Pacific novel, which Dianne carefully carried out to her van. "This will be perfect in the special section of our store where we feature leathers."
Dianne drives into Toronto "every couple of months" to visit with Ron and various other suppliers who she can "count on for unique product lines". She describes the l6,000 square foot Gilpin Furniture store as "an experience for our customers! I shop widely, put a lot of thought into what we display in the store. Intellectually, I transform myself into a consumer when I buy, look for the best product for the best value. And I research constantly. Because of two factors, our geographic location and my own personality, I work at finding really interesting items in upholstery, wood and accessories suitable to our broad spectrum clientele base, all of whom appreciate comfort."
The geographic location provides the operation with distinct challenges. Thedford, Ontario, a village boasting a population of 800, is situated in the middle of a triangle composed of the cities of London, Sarnia and Goderich and, very important to the operation, close to Grand Bend, a traditional Ontario family resort area. "It's a destination business, we depend on tourist traffic from all of Lambton County and along the lakeshore."
In North America, the furniture and funeral industries have been linked from the days of the pioneers. Gibbard Furniture Shops of Napanee were established in 1835 and in those days coffins were manufactured alongside tables, buffets and tea wagons. The Gibbards knew everyone in the area, so were also able to handle the funeral arrangements with sensitivity and warmth.
It was back in 1945 when Dianne's father and mother-in-law, Douglas and Irene Gilpin, bought a combined furniture store, funeral and ambulance business in the village. Originally established in 1903, the enterprise needed a facelift and renovations began right away. Old buildings were rebricked and provided with new roofs and floors and, in the early '50s, the Gilpins acquired the building next door. Today, in the funeral chapel, lanterns from the horse drawn hearse used in the early days are on display. There were living quarters over the furniture showroom in which the family lived for many years.
Ron, one of three children, met and married Dianne in 1970 and, two years later, the couple bought out the senior Gilpins. Both Douglas and Irene remained active until just a few years ago.
After four years of business and commerce at school, and experience in staff training and personnel before her marriage, Dianne was equipped to make an important contribution. "I think I was born with an instinct for the business."
Showrooms have been added to the property, as has a large warehouse east of their main building. Furniture is displayed in stores on each side of the chapel, there are "a couple of floors across the street, and another area in the back". The original barn behind the property has been replaced with a garage for the ambulance and hearse. In l990 they expanded to Forest.
Product knowledge is the basis of Gilpin's repeat business. Dianne likes "to actually fit customers into chairs and sofas, just the same way they are fitted for shoes. The correct depth of seat, the height of the seat, must be considered with each individual person. Some smaller people have difficulty with items that are too large. Their feet can't touch the floor, or their backs are not properly supported. In my store, short legged people get a short legged set." Dianne laughed as she recalled one customer who literally danced out of the store, telling everyone who would listen, "I've got a chair that fits me!"
She also believes in quality and durability. "We prefer eight-way hand tied upholstery, for example. Canadians, especially those with country values, expect to use the purchases they make for many years, to have them stand up to family life. Our lines are not inexpensive, but they're not high end either; they are competitively priced. And I guess you could describe our typical styling as transitional. The favorite leather colors are still burgundy and hunter green, and our popular woods are maple, pine, cherry and ash."
Dianne expresses her fun loving streak in accessorizing her showroom space. The new mirror will be placed so that it will brighten a dark corner, and she will advise her customers to hang it where it can reflect a lovely view of trees or the lake through an actual window. "Most of our decorative items go in the section of our store we call 'Trails'. I was first shown the Expressions' line by a traveller, then subsequently at a furniture or gift show. These pieces just walk off our floor, especially for some reason a small, handcarved replica of a Harley Davidson motorcycle! Boxes and chests of various styles do very well for us, too." She indicated a rustic looking chair side legged box, designed to contain a CD collection. They carry attractive throws, quilts, lighting, place mats, and candles, "so people don't have to drive into London to buy gifts." Gilpin's also offers free delivery.
The Gilpins are trying a new slant on exposure this year. "So far our traffic and sales are just about the same as last year, but we're still testing. We're furnishing a lot of model homes in the area, and this brings people into the store, and we have reduced our newspaper and radio advertising. We will do our usual week's blitz on CHOK Radio, Sarnia, prior to our annual major promotion, 'Savings Saturday' which occurs traditionally on the second Saturday in the month of August. In our location the blitz is heard all through summer cottage country, on the beaches and car radios and, fortunately for us, Saturday has always been a miserable, rainy day. So everyone comes to visit us! The radio station's anchor, Paul Godfrey, does a remote at the store, and it's always an exciting and profitable day.
"Between now and Christmas we will place an ad mix every two weeks in the Zurich Lakeshore Advance, a local newspaper, and the ads will vary between classified and display, different every time"
Dianne is convinced that women should investigate the furniture industry when considering careers. "The sales person is the most important person in the world; everybody buys something virtually every day. There's great opportunity. Women have a special talent for sales; we enjoy making people happy with a good purchase, we can communicate enthusiasm! We have the patience to research our product lines at furniture shows, seminars and directly with the manufacturer, then discuss construction of wood and upholstered furniture with our customers. And then there's the opportunity for self employment whether on a small or large scale; there are many benefits to self employment since it fully utilizes a woman's creative instincts. It's great to deal with customers on a personal level and have them leave your store with a smile on her/his face -- customer satisfaction! And most women are possessed of common sense, we have to be. Sometimes common sense is more important than book knowledge."
Ron and Dianne have two children, Lisa 24 and Robbie 21. "Robbie works part time with us now, the third generation in the business, and he is also involved in transfer courses at both Humber and Fanshaw Colleges. Lisa has her Honors Bachelor of Arts in music and theatre; she's working in the recording business in Toronto.
"Your store must be an interesting, exciting place to visit with plenty of great products and opportunities to become involved in activities, especially with our resort clientele." This summer, you can "Swing A Deal" at Gilpin's. Dianne organized a cooperative promotion with Sand Hills Golf Resort and Wibber Station Golf and Country Club, free l8 hole complimentary rounds with purchases of $250, $500 or $1,000. Never a dull moment!