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Almira Furniture Gallery

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New 17,000 foot store provides customers with a complete sensory experience that is unique, fresh and new.

Stan and Ella West have always believed that shopping for home furnishings should be fun. In spite of surveys that continue to tell us consumers prefer at least two dozen other activities, short, perhaps, of going to the dentist, the Wests have created an atmosphere at the Almira Furniture Gallery that both buyers and browsers find downright irresistible.

Located on King Street, the principal thoroughfare of the quaint Mennonite village of St. Jacob's, Almira has been generating $430 per square foot, 35 percent higher than the top quartile of similar businesses. Certainly a figure to delight most retailers. But the Wests are possessed of a vision. In keeping with the promise of the 21st century, they intend to create an even more extraordinary environment, a compelling destination, "unique, fresh, new for Canada".

Put yourself in virtual reality mode. Travel north, (never mind the snow), and land gently in a limestone-floored Grand Hall with a 14-foot ceiling, defining columns and a spectacular double-sided open-flame fireplace to welcome you. Exotic birds, housed in large decorative antique cages, provide their own fascination.

Beyond the columns, an atrium, with surrounding clerestory windows, soars another 14 feet. No claustrophobia possible at Almira! Your spirit is free to enjoy the atmosphere of a bistro in Provence, complete with coffee bar, more birds, vending carts with books on interior design, furniture maintenance products and floral conceits. Close at hand is a children's room replete with videos and games to occupy visitors from two to 12, while their parents wander through 82 room settings which flow in natural progression around the 17,000 square feet of display space.

But they are much, much more than "room settings". Formal dining is an 18th century experience, a full beamed, recessed ceiling, crown moulding, paneled walls and a Mayan walnut floor in herringbone design. Casual dining, however, has an outdoor garden theme, Mexican tile flooring, one wall surfaced in exterior treatment with a wisteria-bedecked trellis system. Back to the Tudors in the leather room with its rich, dark, diagonal paneling. Here, used hemlock finishes the floor, raised from concrete to sound hollow like an Elizabethan castle keep. Casual bedroom has a British Colonial ambience, a safari theme, the windows shuttered. Motion boasts an interesting wall treatment in variegated stone. It's set up as a home theatre/entertainment centre and there's a working popcorn machine ready to deliver!

The home office has a high-tech look with contemporary carpeting and cable stretched as grid work creating a dropped ceiling effect. Wicker is housed in a tropical paradise, rattan on the ceiling, plantation shutters and a slate floor. A seaside retreat is the home of casual upholstery; paneling here is wormy chestnut, floor-covering seagrass, of course!

Stan's favorite setting is the factory loft. "It has elements of restoration architecture, real windows that face out the front of the store, brick veneered walls with the plaster showing through here and there and an old tin-treated fire door with counter balance. A perfect setting for transitional upholstery."

Ella's choice is the juvenile area. "The little girls' bedroom is an enchanted forest, a fairy tale. And for little boys, we've created a hockey rink with lockers at one end and all the appropriate accessories."

Every area has its own theme, flooring and ceilings change, the entire historical period changes, music is piped in suitable to each individual theme and, would you believe? even scents are different and appropriate. Said Stan, "The idea is to appeal to all the senses; there's a strong entertainment emphasis." For example, there's a waft of sweet coconut oil in the tropical paradise, a breath of wisteria in the garden setting, the formal dining room is suffused with a subtle botanical fragrance and you'll get a healthy lung full of fresh sea air in the seaside retreat!

Scents can be increased or diminished via a distributor head that clips onto track lighting. "There is a control panel that regulates central distribution of the fragrances from the canisters that contain them."

Washrooms will be special, too. "More than necessary space to begin with, expensive fixtures, fresh flowers, hand lotions and other goodies will be there for customers to enjoy."

Back to the atrium now, beyond which is the decorating studio. All Almira salespeople are accredited interior designers and, as part of the Almira "package", they will assist customers to choose window treatments from drapery fabrics on site. Upholstery fabric swatches are oversize to help the customer visualize exactly how that loveseat will look in a variety of covers. And just one block south of the new store, housed with warehousing and the clearance centre, are full time sewers who will put those window treatments together for the customer. "Absolutely everything you need from one source," Stan assured us.
The atrium has a community-focused purpose. With no charge to civic or other groups, Almira will act as host to meetings, seminars and other events, "a super use of the store after hours".

The couple has been researching ideas for more than two years, travelling and discussing concepts with helpful retailer friends. Designer Robert Idol of Atlanta put the accumulated inspirations together for them and added clever topspin of his own. They've even shared the excitement with existing customers who have reacted "very positively". Eighty-five percent of Almira's business comes from the Kitchener, Waterloo and Guelph region. The Wests anticipate this will broaden to include more people from London, Brantford and, since they are already delivering product in Mississauga, a western suburb of Toronto, increased traffic from the GTA or Greater Toronto Area.

"Right from the beginning we wanted to expand in a St. Jacob's location, but we had difficulty with zoning." For a few months, they contemplated relocating to a property in Waterloo. But there were conflicts in this municipality that might have taken a year or more to resolve. "We talked with our existing landlords, first the Mercedes Corporation, now gone public as Consolidated Properties. We have enjoyed a pleasant, productive seven-year relationship with the Chairman, Milo Shantz, a wonderful man with a vision.

"An article that appeared in the local newspaper about our Waterloo plans, raised the concern of the Council who felt it was regrettable that we were considering moving out of Woolwich County. Within days, we were able to rectify the situation. We'll be located opposite a trendy Factory Outlet Mall and adjacent to a new winery and the new St. Jacob's Country Inn, a Best Western Hotel, where we wanted to go in the first place!"

St. Jacob's is a tourists dream, an intriguing mix of the old and new. The time-honored farmers' market is a tradition in central Ontario, and any time of the day/year visitors are treated to the charm of old world horse drawn buggies trotting along the side of country roads, and village shops packed with delectable country baking. But city folks also find high end apparel and gift boutiques lining village streets, together with architectural and other antiques, Dansk and Doulton outlet stores, potteries, wood carvers' and stained glass studios.

At the new location they will broaden their product base, going even more upscale with Henredon and Drexel Heritage, downwards to Stanley which will form Almira's new starting range. "A good, solid, quality line, but at a lower price point."

The couple has "completed the whole package" by hiring a new sales manager, Sherie Thoman. "She has taken a lot of stress off our shoulders. Sherie spent 15 years with Ethan Allen and was General Manager of their Mississauga store. She is sharp, educated, organized, the most experienced person we have ever worked with, and now she's an integral part of the team!"

As technology improves and progresses, they plan to create website potential to walk through their home furnishings wonderland on computer. (www.furn.ca)

Almira's 10-year plan? "We believe we have the makings of a Canadian Ethan Allen. The synergy and talent shared between our retail outlet and the background of West Brothers (a family company, manufacturing a quality, high-end casegoods line) can travel to other markets. We're not just selling furniture at Almira, we're selling beautiful homes, a holistic approach that involves understanding our customers lifestyles, their daily practices."

By the time the snow melts and the trees and daffodils begin to celebrate the spring, the Wests will be ready for the Grand Opening. You're all invited. It's going to be fun!

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.