Important retailers share their views on the new year and their plans to make the most of it.
Could it really be that "Everything's coming up roses" (or at least Trilliums!) for the New Year? Will '97 be a magic number for the industry? Pundits remind us there's still the possibility of federal and provincial layoffs. But the housing market is picking up across the country, reflected by a bumper crop of exhibitors at the Toronto January International Home Furnishings Market. And the number of entries in the twenty-third annual national Trillium Furniture Awards broke the competition's all time record.
The Quebec Furniture Manu-facturers Association's Jean Francois Michaud, General Manager of both the Association and the Market, reported that for the fourth consecutive year the industry is experiencing a growth curve with shipments again up substantially. Judging from first quarter figures, exports by December 31, 1996 should stand at $1.95 billion, an increase of nearly 7 percent over 1995. In terms of export value, the figure should reach nearly $800 million by the end of the year, up 17 percent over 1995, and a whopping 234 percent since l991.
"We expect to see the domestic market, which has been sorely tested in recent years, bounce back with renewed vigour this year. Consumers are gradually regaining confidence, encouraged, among other things, by the lowest interest rates we've seen in decades," noted Michaud.
In varying degrees, Trillium jurors share the same optimistic viewpoint. When we called Andrew Artinian, Dunn's Bestway, St. Catharine's, Ontario, he told us his store had experienced "the best November in years". The economy in his part of the world is dependent to a large degree on the fate of the automotive industry, and a new union contract was ratified during l996. Andrew and his brother, Charlie, have noticed that while some of their clientele are still "repeats" (the children of their father's customers), "There are many other young people buying now that mortgage rates are lower. They're the customers who maybe didn't buy quality the first time, but now they want real wood and good upholstery.
"Ever since l990 when the GST (Federal Goods and Services Tax) came in, it's been hard to get growth. I'm not a big risk taker, but I'm hoping l997 will show the increase we all need. I'll be going to the January Market with a very good feeling. A year ago, I didn't have that feeling."
The quality and diversity of Trillium pieces delighted Andrew. "Brand awareness is becoming important again. We take pride in what we're doing in our store, and we're soft sell in our marketing strategy, two nice print ads each week, no radio. Direct mail is important to us, and in October, we sent out a really beautiful postcard flyer which brought people in from as far away as Burlington."
Things are really going well in Montreal East! Willie Poitras, Vice President Marketing, Brault and Martineau, opened a new 45,000 square foot store last February and yet another will be unveiled in March of l997. Said Mr. Poitras, "People will be more ready to buy in l997. Although there were some slow months in the fall, l996 has been good for us. December has started very well, and we're looking forward to a good year next year for sure. When people have confidence in the economy, they start buying again."
Brault and Martineau are now the "second biggest in Canada with 11 stores. We have four big sales each year, and we use flyers backed up with television and radio as well as newspaper every week. Every time we mount a promotion with flyers we see business coming in. In 1997 we'll do more of the same."
"We saw good quality amongst the Trillium items this year, nice leather, new colors in upholstery, some blues, fringe, tassels, styles that are soft, made to sit on, to relax, not just look at."
In Point Edward, Ontario, Karen Harold, Harold's Interiors, said "Comfortable is the key word! You have the feeling you want to curl up in the new upholstery. Fabrics are softer, cut velvets are big, chairs fit him/her with both arms and feet supported by recliners or ottomans. Trillium covered this well.
"I believe it's going to be a good year. People are coming into their own feelings about their homes, their environment, the place where they'll spend more time with their families and friends. We're getting back to basics. Home theatre is important but, even more so, home offices. I'm working on a home office right now with an African theme, rain forest fabrics and animal prints, some leather, and two wonderful, comfortable chairs on either side of the gas fireplace. People are braver, they're finding out who they are. For another client we're using a fabulous cut velvet elephant fabric for four chairs in a special room.
"People continue to want the best value for their money and this aspect also Trillium covered well, all price points, across the spectrum.
"I'll be using my customer list for effective direct mail in 1997. My goal, my commitment, is to 'Give Back' all next year. As much as we all would like business to be better, I'm grateful for what we have. For every sofa, loveseat or chair that we sell throughout the entire year, we will give a percentage towards the new piece of furniture if the customer will donate their existing sofa, loveseat or chair to Goodwill. If, for example, Goodwill values the item at $200, they will give the customer a tax receipt for that amount. We'll run an ad in conjunction with Goodwill. We do all our print advertising with the local newspaper, 'The Observer.'"
At The Hudson's Bay Company, Toronto, David Hunt told us "The fall of l996 showed a turnaround on sales, and I would expect sales growth to continue in 1997 as the Canadian economy strengthens. Our 1996 promotions were very effective.
"This is my first year as a Trillium juror. Canadian industry does produce a very good quality upholstery product, good tailoring and internal construction. In upholstery the message was definitely comfort all the way with soft greens still predominant, florals, some neutral tones."
In Kitchener, Ontario, Paul Schreiter, Schrieter's Furniture, has "Felt an increase in sales in 1996 over 1995. Consumer confidence is not yet up and running as it should be, however. We have to be positive and more aggressive in our looks and in our pricing. Housing has taken a bit of a jump in the last few months and many people are renovating. All in all, the activity will help our industry.
"Promotionally, we're putting all our advertising dollars into radio and frequency and it seems to be working. We're getting away from 'No, No, No' and percentages off, promoting good value, stability and service. We do no print advertising. In 1997, we hope to work on at least one large mailing, perhaps two, and we'll continue with radio and frequency. We have a good writer, we work out our scripts together. We advertise feelings like comfort rather than any one particular item."
Another first time juror, Paul is "Very impressed. The Trilliums are a good measure of quality, design, pricing and value and the industry should support it across the board."
Mark Wiltshire of Cantrex, one of Canada's big buying groups, is "Feeling good about 1997. We're going to start gathering momentum in the early part of the year. During l996 we tried some new advertising vehicles to zero in on specific skews. We've done our homework, profiled our entire membership and have regional members working together, groups of 20 at a time." Cantrex has 1,100 points of sale, appliances, electronics, photofinishing as well as 700 devoted to furniture.
"The home office category is really hot and we saw good items at Trillium; the quality of casegoods was superb with some outstanding looks. In upholstery also there were some great looks and some of the marketing concepts were excellent. We saw more transitional than traditional or contemporary; it was a mixed bag, everyone had their own interpretation.
"There were lots of blues. It used to be something with navy, now it's navy with something! Also some really nice white on whites, and floral patterns. There was some emphasis on unique pieces in upholstery, and ottomans were predominant, not just to put your feet on but to use as tables too."
Thompson's Fine Furniture in Aurora, Ontario is a 75 year old family business, a l0,000 square foot higher end traditional store, full service with decorators on staff. Jamie Thompson is "Very encouraged about sales throughout this whole fiscal year. We've been busy constantly, experiencing steady growth. Once people get out of their gardens in the early fall, people come in to fix up their homes for the season and we get up a good head of steam that carries us through. Consumer confidence is a lot stronger. People are not spending lavishly but, when they're ready to spend, they want to buy better quality. They have been holding off for the last four or five years with job loss worries. Now they're enjoying shopping but want their purchases to last forever. Leather sales are up.
1997 will continue as '96. We use newspaper and some direct mail, no radio. Word of mouth is important to us. And very strong is our 80 feet of Yonge Street frontage, three windows permanently display well accessorized room settings. Our windows are our biggest trading card.
"We have a preferred customer list and we've used it four times this year because of the celebration of our seventy-fifth anniversary. The other three mailings covered custom upholstery, drapery and interior design and the gift and accessory shop within our store.
"This is my first year as a Trillium Award juror and it's very exciting. The offerings are very saleable, on track, trendy. The top colors are mossy greens as opposed to hunters, golds, jewel tones a little less strong and neutrals, and there are some interesting shapes, asymmetrics, a serpentine side profile, exposed wood. There was a contemporary half chaise/half loveseat."
Vivacious Julie Davis, an old friend now business leader/buyer with Eaton's of Canada, is a tad more cautious. "I'd like to see if the rise in the housing market is going to translate into buying furniture. If we have no more big corporate and governmental layoffs, consumers will spend more money on furniture, they'll have more confidence. But I don't think sales will be huge. 1996 was not bad for us, especially the first quarter. We offered new incentives to buy. One which was effective was the installment plan approach; we broke prices down and put them into 24 equal payments. Then furniture became affordable. And we had a very healthy November. We have some good things up our sleeve for 1997; we're leading edge, two steps ahead of everyone, we have to be!"
Julie saw "Some excellent things" amongst the Trillium entries her first time at bat. "People were very creative in their approach to marketing concepts. Colors are fresh and easy to live with and shapes are soft, somewhat romantic. Lots of comfortable seating, cushions, soft fabrics."
William Minna, since September this year proprietor of B&B Designs, Toronto, promotes by word of mouth rather than advertising. "Most of my reputation has come through people I've known during my years in the industry. Next year I intend to get involved in both the wholesale and retail end of it, and target the design and department store trade. I'll send out postcards with peel-off business cards attached to them, so people can put them straight in their rolodex.
"In 1997 sales will increase but it will be in single pieces to mix with existing pieces rather than groupings. It will be an individualistic style, eclectic at its best. Rooms will be casual, elegant, less formal, above all comfortable and inviting with unique accessories to add character. To me the big colors are neutrals, browns and burgundy; they're cosy and part of everyone's home at this point. And the soft fabrics, chenilles and velvets will be important, plus flannel which you'll see on a lot more upholstery."
The Toronto International Home Furnishings Market runs from Saturday, January 11, through Tuesday, January l4, from 9a.m. to 6p.m. each day, for the best in Canadian furniture. Look forward to seeing you there!