This series, commemorating Furniture World’s 142nd year of publishing, continues with the story of how, after two decades of business in an expanding economy, an Alberta-based retailer successfully re-brands to express its vision, and attract new customers.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone
Part 13: After almost 25 years of business in an expanding economy, Alberta-based retailer re-brands to express its vision, and attract new customers.
Edmonton, Alberta is the Gateway to the North, an entrepreneurial Mecca, with more than a million citizens, and home to North America’s largest shopping mall. It’s the fastest growing city beyond the 49th parallel, and just 140 miles southwest of the Canadian Rockies. Perched strategically at Edmonton’s north end, within geographic shouting distance of the oil sands’ frontier towns of Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, Debbie Crepeau’s re-branded 10,000 square foot UpperWoods Furniture Company is as effervescent as the economy.
Note the word “re-branded”. Why would a retailer whose store is going like gangbusters in an environment that’s soaring stratospherically decide to change anything? Anything at all!
“It was in October, 2009, even in Edmonton a time that could only be described as a tough, or at least a difficult economy, when it occurred to us. It was the right time to reflect upon who and what we were in an arena of worldwide recession but on the edge, in the west, of anticipated intense growth and opportunity! After more than two decades in business our loyal customer base was comprised of people who loved our Royal Oak home furnishings. We knew, however, that there were many more customers out there who had no real idea what we had to offer. A lot of people thought we were a traditional oak store. We needed to change our name, our image, to reflect our product lines of Canadian made solid wood furniture in styles ranging from urban casual to rustic country.
“The name ‘UpperWoods’ expresses our vision as precisely as you can get. We like having ‘woods’ as part of our name. Plural, instead of singular conveys the array of woods we carry – maple, birch, oak, cherry and pine, as well as exotics. The word ‘upper’ is connected with our Canadian roots and Canadian product lines. Upper Canada, now southern Ontario, was first established as a British colony in 1763. In later years, it became known as ‘Canada West’. OK, we’re a lot further west, but the sentiment is the same. Canadian, and proud of it.
“Has anything else changed? No. Same Canadian craftsmanship. Same excellent value. Same nice people. That’s it. Our task is to communicate the ‘message’”.
The history of UpperWoods, properly speaking, goes back almost 25 years. And if you consider Debbie’s parents’ entry into the world of home furnishings, all the way to the ‘60s when Pioneer Furniture Store made its debut. “Pioneers” they were. The Buryniuk family is of Ukrainian descent. Violet and Ernie believed, presciently, that Alberta offered “better opportunities” than the province of Saskatchewan, their original Canadian home. One of seven children, Debbie and her siblings were deeply involved from the get go with the enterprise.
“My mother was creative, hardworking, energetic,” said Debbie. “My father was a truck driver and travelled constantly. Mother had this great idea to buy and sell used furniture. And she was doing very well with it. One day my father came home unexpectedly, earlier than usual, and discovered to his astonishment that she had sold most of the furniture in the house! ‘That’s it!’ he said. ‘Open a store!’”
She did. And soon Ernie joined her in the business, new and used furniture. “But Mom decided she just didn’t like new furniture. So she started yet another store and she did so well she kept Dad’s store afloat!
“We all did our homework at the store. Mom and Dad focused on the business every day from early morning to late at night.” But Debbie knew she was destined to be in the home furnishings business and began as a teenager, part time and after school, learning her trade. Somewhere along the way, there was a name change from Pioneer to Oak Lane.
It was in 1988 that Deb decided she “needed to be on her own. With the help of my parents, I opened an all oak store and called it Royal Oak Furniture. I wanted to do things differently. Mom said we kids should not work for anyone else, we should work for ourselves. And as in so many other respects, she was right!
“Why oak? It’s a beautiful wood! But over the years I found it was important to add maple, cherry and birch, more styles, more contemporary and transitional upholstery, all with more emphasis on furniture fashion.
“My younger brother, Terry, was very much a part of Royal Oak from the beginning, brawn and brains! He made a great contribution to the success of the store. Both Terry and my mother passed away from cancer some years ago, the inspiration for our work with Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute and Rickert House.”
Ten years after the birth of Royal Oak, Deb encountered Trudy Callaghan of Odvod Media, a firm described as “marketing outfitters”, and Trudy has been her “right hand” ever since. During the Royal Oak years, many innovative promotions were conceptualized and implemented.
“When Trudy began to urge me to make a name change, to rebrand, I was horrified at first! I worked so hard to make Royal Oak known, I said, and you want me to change my name and image?
“My ideals are pretty much the same as they were at the outset. I still feel very strongly about selling only Canadian made furniture even though during all the tough times (and believe me there have been some!) I was continually being offered import product. If I had decided to alter my plan and start buying import, and then was creative enough and did not value my reputation, I could stand to make a lot of money. However, I refused to go down that road. Canadian furniture is unbeatable and it doesn’t matter what celebrity is endorsing any particular product, bottom line you just can’t beat true Canadian quality.
“Then there is service; you just must provide excellent service. I am always reminding my staff that we MUST provide our customers with amazing service. Remember, I tell them, without our customers we do not need to have this conversation! It’s really that simple. Sometimes you really don’t have to dig much deeper than what’s right in front of you!
“But rebranding. Year after year we would advertise, using beautiful images of all sorts of furniture, not just the same old ‘oakey dokey’ stuff. We were still getting comments from some potential customers that they did not want to shop at an oak store. I have to admit that it was a difficult decision, but once we got going with it, it allowed us to retain the best of the past and make positive changes to take things up a few levels.
“You always need to be prepared to change the way you do things even though sometimes it’s uncomfortable and you almost feel that you are contradicting yourself. Times change, people’s concepts and wants are continually changing. If you are not willing to move with the times, you will surely be left behind.”
An alliterative slogan was developed for UpperWoods to reiterate and reinforce Debbie’s core conviction, “Passionate Purveyors of Canadian Made Furniture”. This tag is used on all ads, mailing pieces, the website, television and radio.
A new website has been launched. “It’s proving to be a big asset, an awful lot of work but it’s really worth it. We get lots of compliments and, of course, customers! Trends and styles are important, however, we are focusing first on quality and great value. That is what will stand the test of time. Trends come and go. And I absolutely would consider, have considered! selling product on line. We have started with ‘Web Deals’, clearing out products from our warehouse. For example, right now we have a $2200 solid maple dining table, slightly damaged, and selling for $1100.
“Trudy is recreating a very popular newsletter previously designed for Royal Oak that featured the care and maintenance of fine furniture, profiles of many of our suppliers, décor trends and more. She should be ready to launch it in the fall.
“In the future, we will probably use both Facebook and Twitter. We are keeping an open mind with technologies, attitudes are changing so much and so quickly. I want to increase the size of our database also using e-mail addresses. However, I am very aware that consumers are becoming more and more reluctant to share this information as they’re being inundated by some companies on a weekly basis or even more. So we have a new programme at UpperWoods that will educate our customers as to how we will use their information. This programme is called ‘Perks and Privileges’. Throughout the showroom, there will be very visible table top signs that will explain our promise to not abuse their data, as well as provide details as to what the ‘Perks and Privileges’ really are. By the way, I’m still working out the fine details!
“We believe our demographic to be the 23-plus young professionals, trendy, eclectic. And the higher income earners right up to 65 years of age and beyond.
“We’ve added Arts and Crafts to our original wood mix of urban casual and rustic country, and we’re ‘marrying’ it to lighting in the new Edison Gallery (named after Thomas Edison, of course!) just built on our upper level. Metal brackets, brick walls, beams, very Frank Lloyd Wright-ish. My little sister, Lindie, and her husband, Gerd, owners of Woodbeam Company Inc., designed and engineered the space for and with us.
“Our marketing approach has necessarily changed. We are using print ads for events, twice each week in the Edmonton Journal and in ‘Avenue’, a premium glossy magazine, 12 months of the year. All ads are placed on the right hand page in publications; if they are smaller than full page, in the bottom right hand corner.
“We are using television a few times each year using Global Television during the morning and evening news to reach our demographic. And these commercials also appear on our website.
“We used to send out 100,000 postcards to our data base, plus unaddressed cards to different postal codes with suitable demographics. We’ve stopped that and are now getting to our audience in different ways.
“Our annual Customer Appreciation Nights continue. A really great wine and cheese. They are always successful. Every invited guest receives a very attractive Monet-like hand-painted ceramic trivet by Artables, an innovative local company. And we’re talking about creating new promotions.
“I’m happy to report that we have kept most of our old customers and gained lots of new ones who had not been attracted to Royal Oak; we’ve heard that they assumed the furniture designs would be old fashioned!” UpperWoods’ preferred customer list now totals approximately 8,000.
“We have not had a booth for awhile in the local Home Show; we felt we could spend our time and energy more productively. However, we might consider doing it again in a different way in the future.
“We continue to value highly our talented suppliers. One of them, Holly Woods, a personal hero, was a local Entrepreneur of the Year. She is a talented craftsperson who manufactures wonderful huge, heavy, original tables and takes a really serious interest in producing quality pieces.”
Other suppliers include Durham, West Bros., Verbois, Dine-Art, and TH Solid Wood.
Debbie attended the 2012 Toronto Furniture Market last January, and added “the beautifully designed upholstery of Frank and Carmela Perri, of Perri Fine Furniture” to UpperWoods supplier list. She spent time at the Trends Display (story in this issue) and was impressed with “the creative design techniques and brilliant use of colour”.
Her most heartfelt commitment, “Staying true to what I believe. Canadian made furniture. Supporting the local community. Customer service. I have been doing business with some superb manufacturers for almost a quarter of a century and have made great friendships with many of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. I align my company with manufacturers who provide not only fantastic furniture, but also stand behind their products. This allows me to give UpperWoods’ customers the best furniture and service available anywhere.”
We explored Debbie Crepeau’s dedication to Canadian made goods in greater depth, and she provided insights that any US or Canadian retailer selling domestically made furniture and accessories can use. She said, “Canadian consumers are now definitely looking for domestically made furniture. Many have purchased the good looking off-shore products at cheap prices only to be reminded that ‘you get what you pay for’ most of the time. A year or so later these people find themselves looking to replace the failing furniture, unfortunately then filling our landfills with the substandard stuff. We actively promote Canadian Made Quality Furniture. This is UpperWoods’ story and we’re very proud of it. And our customers appreciate our approach. We don’t use specific techniques to highlight Canadian Made. It’s not really needed in our store since ALL our furniture is Canadian Made. Our designer, Kim, highlights our complete showroom. Our sales people (all of whom have design background) introduce the topic of Made in Canada as they greet customers when they enter our showroom, great quality, solid wood, superior finishing process, controlled emissions. One of our associates, Anastasia from Belarus, is a furniture designer. Many of our suppliers are focused on their mission, and are becoming ‘green’ and using finishes that are formaldehyde free.”
For years, Debbie has addressed the issue of Canadian goods suitability to the northern climate. She compares Alberta’s humidity with that of the Sahara Desert, an environment in which many imported pieces could easily “crack, warp or break, whereas properly kilned northern woods remain stable.”
UpperWoods range is not only Fort McMurray and Grand Prairie. Debbie reaches out to British Columbia and Saskatchewan, neighbouring provinces, as well as Alberta. “There is a real advantage when they buy in Alberta. They pay provincial sales tax in their own provinces, a tax that is not exacted in Alberta.” A few months ago, a disastrous fire virtually obliterated the town of Slave Lake. Debbie is engaged in helping with the rebuilding and refurnishing process.
Rebranding, done well, according to experts in the field, creates a sense of authenticity and trust when customers perceive their needs are being responded to. The process must be implemented in a subtle and methodical manner. There is no magic formula but careful strategy like that employed by Debbie, Trudy and their team enables customers to invest their emotions in the “new” entity. They must continue to maintain constant care with each individual project, interacting with professional colleagues and the community that surrounds them.
Said Debbie, “I was reflecting back to the days when my showroom was full of furniture that I loved, it was all my style. As a result, business was not as great as it could have been! Needless to say, I quickly learned to be more diverse in the product I chose for my showroom!
“Recently I came across my very first attempt at a brochure. WOW! It is probably 20 years or so old, and I just discovered that I neglected to include my ‘phone number. I had printed my fax number instead!
“When I stop and think about how I got to this point in my career, I almost shudder. And I’m very grateful as it was a rough road. And one thing that I will never forget is where it all started and how I got here.”
Debbie and her staff are supporters of Global Television Edmonton’s “Woman of Vision” programme, and they hold Silver Sponsorship. The programme celebrates the accomplishments of outstanding Edmonton area women and 12 recipients of this recognition are honored at an annual luncheon featured on Global.
Their primary community outreach involves the Rickert House, a refuge for people who live outside the city and need a place to stay while they’re receiving cancer treatment. “The home was totally gutted and refurbished and we supplied all of the furniture for this home. We want anyone who has to endure such an unpleasant experience, at the very least, not have to ‘go home’ to a stark hotel room. Instead they can go to this cozy little house with all creature comforts.” Patients’ families are also welcome at Rickert. The facility is named after the original owners of the home. (www.rickerthouse.ca)
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.
View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone