Ontario’s largest furniture store occupies an entire city block with over 80,000 square feet of showroom space.
When Irish schoolteacher, Alexander Coulter set his sights westward to the Canadian wilderness, he envisioned the challenges of survival and success in a rugged environment. Intelligence and a strong work ethic were key in mid 19th century Canada and they were Alexander's legacy to his son, James, at his death in 1863.
In Victorian southwestern Ontario, lumber was king. When James cleared his land in Colchester North, dealing in lumber seemed a natural progression. In 1900, James moved to the town of Essex and added coal to his inventory. In the 1920s, his son, Charles, relocated the operation to Windsor. The bustling border city was right across the river from Detroit, already the centre of the huge North American automotive industry. Windsor's entrepreneurs were gearing up to complement the economic dynamic of their friendly neighbours.
Charles Junior (Chuck) and his brother, Bill, joined their father when they were young high school students during World War II. The business diversified in the '50s when demand for coal dropped and the Coulter's fleet of tanker trucks served both business and residential customers in the area with fuel oil.
Their offices were located on Windsor Avenue, just a block or so east of the city's main thoroughfare, Ouellette Avenue. By 1955, the family saw a new potential and Fireside Specialty Company was born, offering custom fireplaces and equipment, andirons and screens to a receptive public. Three years later, they opened a small room next to the office where they inventoried colonial style home furnishings. Furniture sales began to overtake profits from coal and fuel oil in the '60s and, in 1969, “with natural gas coming on strong”, they sold the business and trucks to oil giant Texaco but retained the well-placed Windsor Avenue location. And they've never looked back.
From their colonial base, the Coulters forged into broader horizons of traditional and contemporary styling, and quickly discovered the existence of a “pent up demand for quality furniture”.
Craig Coulter, Alexander's great great grandson, said they never officially recognize anniversaries. “We celebrate every year!” Each expansion has established another landmark, a million-dollar addition in the late 1970s, then 15,000 square feet in 1984. “When you include exterior and interior remodeling, we've probably gone the expansion route almost a dozen times. We've invested three million dollars in the last two or three years,” said Craig.
Now “Ontario's largest furniture store”, an entire city block with more than 80,000 square feet of showroom space, Coulters enjoys an ever-growing cross-border relationship with customers in the State of Michigan. “We are able to undercut U.S. prices while offering excellent value. Also, there is no duty, no U.S. tax, no Canadian GST (goods and services tax) nor PST (provincial services tax), so our American customers can buy as much as they want of well-designed, high quality home furnishings. I sincerely hope the Canadian dollar drops again; a lower dollar is much better for our manufacturing exporters, too. We have delivery trucks in Michigan every day now. We also occasionally export to Europe; we have local customers who have relatives there.”
The Coulters are great believers in marketing, “getting our name visible. We advertise in a U.S. magazine called Drive with Dave Hunter's assistance and a local glossy, Windsor Life, with the help of Jo-Anne Lauzon. We frequently appear in The Windsor Star in home improvement sections and in dedicated fold out flyers. We're also present on the front and/or back covers of The Star's special publication distributed in Detroit and beyond, Explore Windsor and Essex County.
“Our billboards are especially important to us and they're well-placed, one at the Canadian exit of the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel and another on the Huron Line, just coming off the Ambassador Bridge near the university, in the right positions to catch the eye of potential consumers. At the moment we're featuring the Olsen Twins' youth bedrooms and Slideshow, Sofa's International innovative seating units. My father, 'Chuck', is 79 now, and he still comes to the store three times a week. He's in charge of the billboards, together with our consultants, Scott Irwin of Viacom and Mark Klein, Pattison Outdoor, and Dad's a wonderful resource for all of us.
“Mother, a former high school teacher, used to handle our advertising, but she retired a few years ago and now my sister, Gail, who also buys accessories, our marketing man, Rene Dubois and myself work together as a team to develop concepts based on what's happening in the city, the time of year, what we see at the Markets and perceived trends. The people at The Windsor Star are very helpful, too, especially Kathy Renaud.”
You would expect Coulters to have a solid website and they do. Craig's brother, Bruce, is official administrator. It's a down to earth, easy-to-use site complete with information for the U.S. shopper about taxes, delivery and duty, even a map. And every department contained within the 80,000 square feet is well defined. Many of the top suppliers have their own add-ons, colourful displays of sofas, casegoods, accessories, you name it. www.coulters.com is a direct sales tool, simple to access, plenty of visuals, with questions answered and suggestions galore.
Happenings occur throughout the year at Coulters. Craig talked about their popular wine and cheese introductions and right now he's working with Sklar and other suppliers on a ladies only day in June or July. “No men will be allowed at all in the store and the ladies love that. We use our computerized preferred customer list for these events.”
There are occasional competitions, also attention-getters with consumers. Just before the holidays a ballot appeared on the back page of a Windsor Star special section, “Win a Sofa!” Craig featured a $2,399 Ferritti leather piece. The draw was held at the store on December 23rd and The Star's Kathy Renaud was the celebrity of the moment. The gorgeous prize itself was the feature of the full-page ad that announced the latest “Grand Re-Opening Expansion”.
A full year before the idea came to fruition, Craig approached top interior designer Robby Lynn Young, “testing the waters. I always plan ahead. I called to ask her if she would be interested.” The concept involved what is now called The Room, actually setting up Young's studio and business office within Coulter's store, the only such arrangement in the Windsor area at that time. Both now declare it to be “an ideal marriage”. An upstairs space, The Room serves as a great backdrop for the designers and their wares with its hardwood floors, soft lighting and informal atmosphere.
Young has been joined by two associates, interior design consultant Cindy Catton and drapery consultant, Paulette Nicodemo. Their preferred access to Coulter's vast array of furniture and accessories provides customers with dazzling choice opportunities. The Room itself, at time of writing, had been reconfigured to incorporate Martha Stewart Signature Furniture, three separate collections each inspired by Martha's residences in Long Island, Maine and Connecticut. They're also featuring one of Craig's other favourite lines, mary-kateandashley's youthful bedrooms. The Room's team has “networked” with Palazzi Oriental Rugs and R. E. Lighting. “We have everything available to put a room or an entire home together. Whatever the customer wants, we'll find it,” said Robby Lynn. Custom bedding, window coverings, blinds and fabric accessories are also on display to inspire clients. And they have their own painters, paperhangers, seamstresses, upholsterers, cabinetmakers and other skilled people to assist. “Everything on the customer's schedule is coordinated so it runs smoothly, one step to the next.”
Craig encourages consumers to really look at their homes, maybe get out “a big piece of paper and some of the kid's crayons and try combinations you've always loved but hesitated to use. Then carry your artwork to The Room!”
He's high on his talented staff, too. When asked to identify his “most important people”, he said, “They're all important, every one of them! We put their pictures into our flyers so customers know who they are.” Tim Finlay and Janet Riley are two of Coulter's even dozen full time sales associates. Finlay says,“Listening to the client is very important. Most of them know what they want; we have to help them find it.”
“The Coulter's customer is someone looking for enduring quality and style,” said Janet Riley. Associate Wendy Fields added,“The store's success stems from the fact that it carries medium to high quality products. Customers rely on the fact they'll be purchasing goods that will not only look good but last.”
Riley said, “Coulters offers three months no interest, no payments and we don't ask for extra fees for that either. It's simply another way that we're very flexible. All our price tags include the delivery charge, set-up and GST (for Canadians) already. What you see is really what you get.”
“The most rewarding aspect of sales is having a customer call me after they've received their furnishings to tell me how fabulous it looks,” said Finlay. “All the sales staff get these calls and are often invited to come out and take a look.”
The “vast array” of suppliers includes both Canadian and U.S. manufacturers. Craig talks highly about them all. His attention was caught at the last Toronto Market by “Décor-Rest's new eight-way hand tied line in leather in really eye-catching colour”. He liked the flexibility of Palliser's children's collections. Durham scored high marks in solid wood bedroom furniture and the family has a long-standing relationship with Gibbard Furniture Shops. Lane, La-Z-Boy and Brentwood, Laurier and Morigeau-Lepine get top marks. He's also gung-ho about Martha Stewart. When he acquired her 47-piece collection he said, “These are beautiful pieces that our customers will really enjoy. She (Stewart) is going to come out of all of her troubles quite strong and I'm confident that we've made a really great decision in carrying her Signature line.”
Craig's latest expansions include forays into home office and, most recently, a complete home theatre division, “the newest technologies and maximum seating comfort”. With his wide-open mindset, he looks ahead five years to a store even larger with “more designer furniture and exclusive lines”. Down the way, perhaps his son, Charles Mark, 21 and a student at University of Windsor will be on board. Or his daughter, Shannon, a registered nurse and now the proud mother of granddaughter, Grace. “She's just a year old, but one can hope maybe around 2025 she'll show some interest!
“China's exports might be a problem in the industry, but not so bad if the (Canadian) dollar is lower. And I anticipate a pent up demand for home furnishings that will show itself this summer.”
Craig began in the business as a very young and energetic driver for his grandfather and father. “If you want to start a retail store today in a small space, five to ten thousand feet, you have to be prepared to work early in the morning until late at night. You've got to live there. It has to be a passion.” It would pay to listen. That's a Coulter talking!