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Retail Success Story: Critelli’s Furniture - 100 Years Done Right

Furniture World Magazine


When an entrepreneurial organization reaches its century mark there’s a sneaking suspicion that its principals might just tend to coast a little, quiet afternoons at the golf course, sleepy weekends at Key West, wherever their fantasy takes them... just let the business run itself.

But try spending time with Critelli’s fourth-generation president, Joe, and any such notions rapidly disappear! Sparks fly when Joe addresses the future. He actively utilizes every nuance of the past’s dynamic momentum, his energy sweeping you aboard Critelli’s magic flying carpet for a thrill-a-minute ride!

Joe, with his Team, plotted the strategies surrounding the activities for their centenary celebrations with all the skill of a latter-day Sun Tzu and his nimble cohorts.

Then, at High Point Market, he hired a consulting group. Their mission, to maintain the trajectory and initiate an educative process, reaffirming effective past and current practices. The topspin, to introduce inspiration and direction to cope with and transcend the movements of our rapidly-evolving marketplace.

“After 100 years, there are clearly more than a few things all our people do very well indeed,” affirmed Joe. “But we’ve always been vitally interested in how to do it better. Basically, how to guide and encourage our clients and prospects to find the very best possible furniture and accessory choices for their homes, offices, cottages or any project important to them. To help them capture their dreams.
“We’ve spent much of our professional time within the ambience of our two stores (Critelli’s Fine Furniture and Transitions) with furniture brands we know and understand intimately. We have been able to improve our sales team’s ability to successfully connect with our clients to some degree. Profitability Consulting Group will train all departments of our staff on best industry practices. We’ve already experienced three intense training weeks (as of the last weekend of July) and at least seven more weeks are tightly scheduled from August 2014 forward.

“Other, larger operations, many having multi-store locations in more urban markets, have been exposed to so many challenges and have benefitted from their greater experience. Working now with our consultants, who’ve been observing us closely for several weeks, we have the same opportunity here on home ground to learn from larger companies that understand ‘best practices’ in every aspect of their operations. We intend to isolate the weak areas in our operation and improve upon them with the knowledge of what other good operations have learned.

“I hired PCG as an investment in the company and in our people. And in providing better service to our clients here and now and in the future. We ask ourselves relevant questions. For example, if we’re only dealing with furniture as a commodity we are not emphasizing what’s so very different about us from the box stores! So, what is it that’s different? We’re not interested in one-and-done selling; we’re interested in creating totally satisfied lifetime clients.

  Joseph Critelli founded the store (top left photo circa1902, Niagara Falls, Ontario) that carried
general provisions & groceries. In 1912 he financed the first Critelli’s store that stocked furniture in Thorold, Ontario run by his son, Ontario run by his son Thomas (top right).

Thomas H. Critelli is shown standing in his tore in 1949 (bottom left). Critelli’s store in downtown St. Catherines showroom is shown in a photo taken in 1961 (bottom right).

“We’re examining specific strategies used over the past decade to remain relevant to volatile markets. What have we been doing right?” Joe, obviously enjoying himself, said, “Well, this exercise is not at all work to me, it’s partly reveling in my truly fascinating occupation and partly it’s my favorite hobby! And I believe that to be true of every member of our Team.”

Let’s backtrack a bit. How did the previous three generations of highly motivated Critelli’s accomplish so much? What’s the foundation and philosophy that led to the conception of Critelli’s Fine Furniture, Canada’s Niagara Region’s most notable source of “classic traditional to transitional contemporary” styling? And Transitions, “classic contemporary to European and urban modern” design?

Back 10 years ago, at the time of Critelli’s 90th anniversary, Joe traced the family’s history for us. He told us about that other energetic, assertive young man, also, coincidentally named Joe Critelli, who arrived with a bit of a flourish in Niagara in the bustling early 1900s. A successful contractor, he didn’t come to Canada from Italy by himself, but “brought with him his own workers from Italy to help create the vast new hydroelectric projects at the Falls on both sides of the border between Canada and the U.S.” The group flourished and Joe’s great-grandfather made the decision to put down roots, call Canada home and raise a large and happy family.

In 1914, as was tradition, he set up his son, Thomas, in business. He chose the village of Thorold, and a retail establishment inventorying hardware, groceries and, because Thomas boasted a genetic creativity and feeling for design, fine furniture. The business thrived and 12 years later Thomas opened a second store with his brother, Frank, this outlet at the town of Niagara Falls. Thomas preferred to concentrate on Thorold, partly because of the business growth implicit in the exciting construction boom along the Welland Canal. Canada, like the Critellis, was in expansion mode.

Pictured above is Critelli’s third store in downtown St. Catharines, Ontario 1961 (left) and Critelli’s today.

Three years later, the Critellis opened a third store, this in downtown St. Catharines. Their optimism and energy encouraged rapid growth and, a few years later, in order to concentrate on the new, swiftly blossoming enterprise, Thomas sold the Thorold outlet to a group of employees.

In 1946, Thomas’s son, Thomas Joseph, Joe’s father, joined him in the venture. Fifteen years later with four showrooms and an on-site warehouse, the family knew that expansion was vital, so by 1963 they had built the King Street location, closed the Niagara Falls store, and “everything came together under one roof”.

Warm memories surfaced when Joe remembered “the early days of the store. It was truly a family business. My father worked in the store and raised a family of six kids. We all had a taste of the business early in our lives, participating in every aspect. My grandfather enjoyed the operation tremendously and worked with us until he was 89.” (In turn, again following familial genetic exuberance, Joe’s father and third president, Tom, now at 87, while confessing to occasionally working on his golf game, still takes a very active interest in the business!)

Joe officially became a member of the company in 1980 and in, 1989, claimed ownership. That same year, his sister, Misette, strengthened the executive Team and, three years later, as a major thrust in Joe’s search for new ways to meet customers’ needs, he launched nearby Transitions, the beautiful store Misette ably manages.

Critelli’s Fine Furniture and Transitions complement one another perfectly. “It often happens that clients engaged in buying traditional/transitional furnishings at Critellis will walk over to Transitions to choose something in European contemporary to suit another aspect of their project. It works wonderfully well.”
It stands to reason that Joe “Just loves going to Market!” Along with other recent adventures, he met the principals of his consulting firm there. He also heard Jerry Epperson’s always timely Market message. Jerry noted that “Over 50 per cent of stores open 10 years ago are now closed.” A startling revelation and a warning flag for retailers.

Said Joe, “For some of us the industry seems in fine shape at least superficially. Critelli’s at this point in time couldn’t be better, we’re enjoying the game!” Correctly optimistic, but flags should always be examined and acted upon.

Pictured above  (l-r) is Thomas H Critelli (2nd generation) and  Thomas J. Critelli (3rd generation).

Positive action incorporates “The celebration of our centenary with our clients and our community. I guess it’s pretty obvious that we’re all very proud to be a small part of what we are convinced will be an even better city and region very soon.”

The Events, Sales, Campaigns, Milestones and Projects Marking Critelli’s 100th Anniversary.
  • ”We opened our seventh showroom and fourth building in downtown St. Catharines in preparation for our Anniversary on November 1st, 2012, adding 80 feet of King Street frontage and great client parking for our existing two buildings at Critelli’s main store location.
  • “CritelliFurniture.com and TransitionsFurniture.com websites were completely rebuilt, becoming a better resource for our clients and prospective clients, April to October, 2013. In January/ February we received 20,000 and 21,000 unique visitors to the two websites combined each month.
  • “At the Greater Niagara Home and Garden Show, the Scotiabank Centre March 21-23, 2014, we were featured as Critelli’s Designer Show Home. We furnished 600 square feet of fully decorated room settings and won Best of Show!
  • “The CFUW, Canadian Federation of University Women’s House Tour. We were the Title Sponsor, helping to raise funds to further the post-secondary education of young women here in Niagara. And we had a blast, hosting the House Tour After Party at Critelli’s, Sunday, May 4th, 2014, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., with 300 guests and volunteers.” Joe laughed, “We had just 250 wine glasses and my wife, JoAnne, and our daughters had to wash two or three dozen to keep up with the traffic! (More about this!)
  • “Profitability Consulting Group came on board to professionally train all departments of our staff!
  • “Two YWCA Friend Raising Evenings will be held at Transitions, September 16th and 18th, 2014, to help the YWCA find community volunteers to assist in raising capital for an important new YWCA community investment. Misette Critelli is a member of the YWCA Board and is hosting these evenings.
  • “The Critelli Furniture and Meridian Credit Union Community Fund Raising Program, dates tentatively November 1st, 2014 to January 31st, 2015. Critelli’s will help by providing several Stressless Mayfair Leather Office Chairs to Meridian Credit Union’s Branch Offices across Niagara and Hamilton. The Meridian Centre and other Meridian Branch Offices have been considered, details to be determined in follow-up meetings. Meridian Credit Union marketing will assist us in driving this fund raising program with 100 per cent of the funds collected by Meridian ear-marked for local charities, also to be determined. The Meridian Centre, a new spectator facility, is a fabulous addition to our downtown and we are excited to be involved with Meridian in their fund raising program and future community initiatives. 
  • “Critelli’s 100 Years’ Celebration Anniversary Sale, September 12th to October 25th. Each of our valued suppliers will be participating to help us build this event into our greatest sale in 100 years! We’re preparing for weekly draws, unprecedented savings on all our brands and even some free furniture giveaways. Our store will be closed to the public after Labor Day for about one week to prepare for the sale. One of my jobs is to price and move furniture! We will run a few private sale days for our valued clients providing them with the first opportunity to shop our sale while the store remains closed to the public. Added staff that know our products and have worked with us in the past from across Canada will help us run this sale. Naturally, there will be a spike in our advertising across Niagara and into other adjacent markets in Southwestern Ontario.
  • ”The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. Critelli’s will be hosting their ‘Business After Five’ event, Tuesday, November 4th, 2014, 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We’ll be celebrating business and community and enjoying some great social networking with business friends, local and regional political friends, clients, staff and family. 
  • We’ll co-host with the Niagara Community Foundation, headed by Liz Palmieri. It’s a great opportunity to present their initiatives to the business community. 
  • “We are also co-hosting with M. K. Rittenhouse & Sons, family owned and operated here in St. Catharines, also celebrating their 100th anniversary. Surely it’s rare that two companies in the same city reach that milestone in the same year! Rittenhouse manufactures and distributes fine horticultural equipment and tools to green industry. Their expansive e-commerce website and outstanding customer service have made them one of the leading companies within their industry across North America. Both Critelli’s and Rittenhouse are active supporters of the Niagara Community Foundation and, of course, the Chamber of Commerce. Liz, Mark Rittenhouse and I will plan a great and fun event together. Our favorite Niagara wineries and catering will be an important part of our planning to help make this an evening of fun and fellowship. 

“With each occasion where we’ve had the pleasure of hosting a large group of well-qualified individuals in our stores, it has generally had a very positive and fairly immediate impact on our sales results.”

The House Tour After Party at Critelli’s showroom above.

Now, some more detail on the very popular annual Canadian Federation of University Women’s fundraiser! Not only is the cause notably both worthy and timely, it also provides plenty of energetic fun for volunteers and participants alike. The CFUW is one of Canada’s oldest organizations, founded in 1919, the membership across Canada about 10,000 strong. Two hundred and forty of those numbers are members of the St. Catharines’s branch, an extremely active group. The House Tour is their main fundraiser to award scholarships to graduating women in area high schools, as well as four scholarships at Brock, and two at Niagara College. And this year just happened to be the fortieth anniversary of the Tour. It’s focused on community entirely, community members open up their homes, is totally volunteer-run, and businesses in the area heavily support the event. A thousand bright, highly noticeable posters were hand-colored by kids from schools in the area. Local photographer Ian Ransberry photographed the homes’ exteriors for the tickets, and local artist, Chris Liszak created a water color of each home as a gift to the homeowners for opening up their homes to the public.
Said Joe, “As title sponsors this year we really hoped to get out the message. A lot of people participate because they get to see some beautiful houses, but they can also feel great about helping to sponsor young women advancing their post-secondary educations.

“Tickets are $25, there were five houses to view, the visitor was provided with a map and capable volunteers manned each home and discussed their unique features. Every year there is a big “after” party, this year at Critelli’s.” Joe said, “It was a great finish to a wonderful day. We staged a presentation on decorating your home. One of our designers, Verna Allan, was both mastermind and presenter. And Sarah Lanigan, Curator and Director of The Stickley Museum of Fayetteville, New York, gave a virtual tour through the history of Stickley, one of the world’s most well-known manufacturers of fine furniture.”

It was one of those gratifying happenings when everyone benefited. And had a wonderful time.
Misette Critelli is justifiably proud of Transitions participation in the anniversary events. “The two YWCA Friend Raising events are unique to Transitions and are close to my heart. And, of course, we’re involved in conjunction with Critelli’s in the l00 Year Anniversary Sale. As well as the Professional Staff Training that we’re currently experiencing company wide.

“I returned full time to the business in 1989. I’d looked after the accounting in Critelli’s business office for many years, and when Joe had the idea to expand we decided I would manage our new Transitions store.”

  4th generation Misette Critelli who joined the company in 1989 and President, Joe Critelli.

A moment of history came alive for Misette when she, “Received a yardstick from our customer Peter Theriault, a retired engineer with the City of St. Catharines. Years ago my grandfather gave this yardstick to Peter’s father. It originally came from the St. Catharines’s Standard, our local newspaper. I remember our father using this same yardstick to measure the size of daily ads. Our Critelli store name, the old five digit telephone number and original downtown James Street address are embossed on the yardstick that now has come full circle, a measurement of our time in the business.

“Our 100th Anniversary for me ties in with another 100th family anniversary that we recently celebrated as founding members of St. Ann’s Catholic Church which still stands in operation today on Buchanan Avenue in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The Critelli family brought their first parish priest from Italy to help start St. Ann’s Church. It was a busy year for the Critelli family, 100 years ago.” And now!

Joe acknowledged how much pleasure both family and staff are experiencing as a result of the promotions and happenings marking the 100th anniversary. But he is realistic that, “Nostalgia is not what the next client or potential client is considering when crossing Critelli’s or Transitions’ thresholds. She/he is naturally focused on their own personal project. All of us in the business recognize that today’s consumer is now far more ‘educated’ than in the past. Our job is to constantly be on the learning curve, too, improving our craft, finding better ways to provide information and service when they come into the store. Gathering information from them, then being able to say, ‘Can I show you this example or price range?’

“The way furniture is being purchased on a daily basis is different from prior to the coming of the Internet. In fact, the Internet has given power to the consumer and we need to earn their trust. It could be said that we are ‘selling’ on the Internet now, not literally, but with the tools of the constantly changing scene of our website, we send weekly reminders to key people about happenings at the stores, not just sales but events, new inventory, anything newsworthy. We are making our messages friendly, fun, educational, not pushy. We use very frequent e-mails.

“There is old media and new media and we are, like everyone else, adjusting to changing times. The old media is still very important to a very important segment of Critelli’s demographic! But the new media is quickly becoming the most vital place to be. The life and breath of our company is based on the ability to convert prospects to new clients.

“There’s no doubt at all that we have to have our feet in both ‘boats’ and at some point you will know you have to get into one of those boats. Time will tell when we make the decision to embark in the new boat, embracing the new media! It’s both the greatest competition and the greatest opportunity.

“We have been and are making improvements in small things, for instance, delivery by appointment. It is so important to call and tell clients if you are going to be late. They must perceive that we understand their needs and respect their time.

“And we must exceed their expectations. Perhaps a customer has ordered a piece of furniture over the ‘phone. That particular item is available in four sizes. Then the one they receive doesn’t quite fit. Even though it is the one they ordered! So we put the piece of furniture back on our truck and tell them, not to worry, we will sort it out. They will get the piece they really want and need.

“We are devoting a week of staff training to mastering the art of helping people make the right selections and this can involve home visits. The question, how best to work with customers. Even if we are just selling a sofa here in the store, how we might help them make the best choice.

Furniture World asked Profitability Consulting’s CEO John Egger about his experience working with Critelli’s. “Joe has a very good business,” he told us, “and after 100 years in business he decided to get even better, take it to the next level. And, as it turned out, he needed some help in the back end to save money, in the office, and also with the sales team.

“The sales team we found at Critelli’s was very experienced and traditional. They were good quality people with designer training who had never been exposed to a proper UP system or a true selling process. Their performance ranged from excellent down to below average. There were large performance variances that called out for some sales training but, more importantly, they needed quality sales management of the process we were training. I really believe that sales training is worthless without good sales management.

“We found a unique situation at Critelli’s because there was a person on staff who wasn’t involved in sales management but had the perfect profile for being a great sales manager. And it happened to be Joe Critelli’s sister Misette who has the discipline, intelligence and respect of the entire team. With some training she was able to jump right in and do what great sales managers do. That is, provide feedback, measure results on a consistant basis so every team member knows how they are doing and how they compare to the store’s averages. Over time sales will increase.

“From there we trained the sales staff on basic in-store selling as a unified process.

“They didn’t need design training, but they did benefit from proper house call instruction so they could work a system that’s developed and measurable, so that no matter which member of the team waits on a customer or does a house call, the store will get a similar result and the customer will get a consistent level of service.”

Speaking of service, Joe followed up with the question, “What creates customer service issues? A multitude of reasons! And we want our customers to feel so relaxed that they feel they can call us for help in five days or five years after their purchase. Perhaps they made a mistake in their selection. Maybe there was an accident in their home with a piece of furniture. Whatever their problem, they will get good help from us.”

Here’s an example from Transitions’ files, clients Marsha and Ted. “Hi, Misette and Melanie, I’ve been meaning to drop you a line to tell you how great the chair cushions worked out! Forgive me for getting distracted and taking so long to email you about this. The chair is MUCH more comfortable! We’re not sinking into it with our arms way up on the arm rests, like the King and Queen of Apsley, Ontario! The higher seat also looks like more of a match with the couch now, so all in all I think it worked out great. Thank you for your concern with this problem and for your efforts in working with Harden on our behalf to make sure we were happy with the result. It is very much appreciated.”

Not to be outdone, Joe provided a story from Britney, of Hamilton, Ontario. She was eager to see and try the Stickley Eastwood chair prior to a possible purchase since she had a history of back problems. She asked if it would still be available at sale price since the sale date had passed. Joe encouraged her to visit the store and, a few days later, received this email. “Joe and Verna! I just wanted to let you know how thrilled I am with my new chair. This is a dream I have had for many years and you both have made it a reality! Verna was an exceptional saleswoman. Her knowledge of the furniture and her balance of being there to answer any questions without being ‘pushy’ in sales makes her a terrific sales person for this line. (With 25 years in sales myself, I appreciate this fine balance!) You can be sure that we will be back to Critelli’s when we are looking for our next pieces. Now I have to pry myself out of my new chair and go to work! Britney.”

Over the past decade some of Critelli’s and Transitions’ suppliers inevitably have changed. “Gibbard*, of course, has gone. We handled the whole Gibbard line. Now we have Stickley, similarly very fine furniture that you can be proud of. There is a group of people who collect Stickley and we have lots of Stickley clients. We deal with West Brothers, Dinec, Stanley, Our House, Hancock and Moore, Jessica Charles, Henredon, Woodbridge, Bermex, Harden, Jonathan Charles, Nichols and Stone and Barrymore. And Magniflex Mattress, an amazing line. It’s totally l00 per cent green, no chemicals, built just outside Florence, Italy, compacted and air-shipped to our store.

“In accessories our prime suppliers are Theodore Alexander, Maitland Smith, Wildwood, Christopher Guy for hand-carved mirrors, Art and Frame Source and Left Bank Art.”

At Transitions, Misette “has added Stressless, American Leather, Calligaris, Dinec, BDI, Thayer Coggin and Copeland Furniture”.

To reach their much expanded customer base, Joe initiates warmly-crafted, informative direct mail three times each year, “and probably should be doing it more often. We purchase lists of better neighborhoods. And we use CHCH-TV, Hamilton, two or three times a week, radio for special events and sales and definitely print since an important part of our demographic still likes to hold a newspaper!”
Ninety-five per cent of Critelli’s and Transitions’ sales are centered in the Hamilton/Burlington/Oakville area with occasional forays across Canada and to Europe.

Looking ahead, Misette commented, “My projection for the future of fine furniture is that while it remains an art to encourage new purchases of furniture that will become family heirlooms, it will always be a fine balance of science and art. We will be keeping up with modern technology and continuing the ‘touch, feel and sit’ that are so important to keep the furniture and the furniture shopping experience unique. All that while we continually improve to keep the staff and clients engaged for the next generation.”

Misette talked of “Joe’s wife, JoAnne, and daughters Julia and Marisa” who “help out at special events when they get the opportunity to”.

Joe added, “JoAnne truly has been key to any success the company has enjoyed. She has been the best mother, raising our three girls, enthusiastically coordinating the needs of our children plus a few of their friends all along the way. Our planned company events are very special thanks to JoAnne’s ability to organize well, and her attention to the details that make it fun for our clients and staff. It has been a pleasure thinking about the future of Critelli’s while confident the family and home has always been well taken care of by JoAnne.”

We remarked on Joe’s seemingly unstoppable energy and vitality and wondered how he and his family continued to maintain the pace. His response, “Our parents certainly gave us a great example of eating well. I’m sure, like so many others, I’m always aiming to improve my diet along with intended regular exercise. But, just like business, sometimes it all works out well. And other times a good movie, some Niagara wine and a pizza (on a comfortable sofa!) provides us with a better perspective for tomorrow!”

“The immediate future? November has always been our strongest month for sales over the past four years, and I certainly expect the same or better results this November with all of our events and programs in place.

“This business always provides us with a constantly changing future that is guaranteed to challenge us every single day!”

*Note: Gibbard Furniture Shops, Napanee, Ontario, an iconic Canadian firm founded before Confederation in 1835, were manufacturers of high quality beautifully hand finished solid wood furniture, their president, much-honored Bruce McPherson. The company closed in 2008.

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.