Kelly Cussons' programs double retail sales in just three years.
"I had been looking at Waterdown as a location for a new business. I loved the old buildings, the Victorian flavor of the town. After a year of hunting, I heard The Willow Tree was available. It had been in existence for about 10 years when I entered into negotiations to purchase. The store had not been doing too well financially, and I saw immediately there was a challenge. We turned it around, implemented internal systems, computerized, upgraded the corporate image, established credit with suppliers and trained staff, in fact, had a trainer come in once a month to assist us. We inherited some customers, and then built a stronger base. This was in 1996, and since then sales have doubled."
No mean feat. The Canadian Gift & Tableware Association recognized Kelly Cussons' efforts with top honors earlier this year. More than 550 outstanding nominations were received for their annual Retailer of the Year competition. Each store was required to submit a complete package of information including a profile outlining the focus of the store, design and display themes, marketing and promotional programs, community involvement as well as any other factors that made the business exceptional.
A CGTA Committee composed of members of the industry, a retail analyst, an interior designer and past Retailer of the Year winners, reviewed each and every application. Then secret shoppers visited potential finalists. To quote an Association official, "The process was rigorous and the judging exhaustive".
Kelly's 2,600 square foot Willow Tree was presented with one of the top three awards available in Canada, the Canadian Business Achievement Award, and also the Eastern Canada Award of Merit for Excellence in Retail. "A real shock!" she exclaimed during our interview.
Waterdown is a village of 11,260, a 10-minute drive from the industrial and college city of Hamilton, part of Ontario's prosperous Golden Horseshoe. A favorite quote from out of town customers is, "It's worth the drive to Waterdown". And they come in droves from as far away as London and Barrie, Ontario, a 200-mile radius.
Kelly told us that "The village is, in a sense, divided into two sections, the Ridge of Waterdown with its old architecture and Victorian flavor, and the new section, really close by, which has two shopping centers, a big plaza and a smaller 25 year-old-one in which the Willow Tree is situated.
"The store itself was actually two stores originally. We've united the two with a large, squared-off archway and, on the first side, everything is in creams and gold, it's really classic looking, formal linens, crystal and glass, scented products, baby gifts and collectibles and wrought iron furniture rubbed with gold. On that elevation of the arch there is wood trim, wisteria and, a lettered sign, 'These are a few of my favorite things'. Our music is gentle, the Solitudes Collections, Echoes of Swan Lake. The carpet is a different color on each side.
"On the second side, the motif is brickwork, the draping in ivy. Here we feature pine furniture, a darker finish for wrought iron, garden accessories, books, gourmet foods. It's rustic, country, folksy and, in Waterdown, people like the folksy look. Music here is Avalon, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald.
"We want our customers to have their spirits lifted the minute they enter the Willow Tree. Their shopping trip must be turned into an adventure, an experience. That's why the copy for our ads invites people to 'Experience Christmas with us', and so forth."
Kelly has nine staff members, each in charge of her own section, and her Manager, Sue Patterson, is given freedom to use her creativity. Kelly and Sue purchase furniture as a team. Principal pine suppliers are SLM Pine, Ron Taylor, both Ontarians, and Rustique, a Mexican line. Wrought iron comes from CW Associates, and garden accessories, those wonderful, whimsical gargoyles and fountains, are the creation of United Designs.
The CGTA in their description of Kelly's strategic planning said, "The store has also launched four eminently successful, high visibility programs: a Corporate Business Service, Custom Floral Design Service, the Willow Tree Consulting Service and a Complete Wedding Service." We asked Kelly to describe these activities.
"We're building and improving our Corporate Business Service. This involves making presentations to corporations, selling them on the concept of purchasing all their Christmas gifts and retirement gifts from us. And we are working with real estate people to present their new homeowners with a gift. I feel we've only just begun with this, but it's in the works.
"Marsha Robertson, a floral designer, is our Assistant Manager. She goes out on assignment to assist customers, and also they bring bowls and vases into the store and say, 'What should I do with this?'"
"Sue is an interior designer, and she advises people in their homes about accessorizing problems and opportunities.
"We began the Complete Wedding Service last year and we're definitely getting better at it! We have an informal bridal registry. For example, the bride tells us the bathroom is blue and green and her theme is fish. And we pass this information on to the customer. The Willow Tree does absolutely everything there is to do with the wedding. Next year we'll start rentals.
"We cross-market with other stores in Waterdown with our Bridal Walk. We get people to come to Waterdown for this event and they walk from store to store. We have arrangements with a ladies' wear store, a florist, a restaurant where they can stop for lunch -- it works well! People have fun with this. And it's good for everyone in town.
"We're working now on a new 'Passport to Waterdown'; the customer will get their passports stamped at each store and receive discounts.
"Whenever it's appropriate, we mount contests and draws. For Mother's Day, a draw for a patio set, glasses, a pitcher, a tray. For Father's Day last year the prize was tickets to the Blue Jays' game. "
She laughed, "I HATE sales! I truly believe they diminish regular store sales. Now I keep them to Boxing Day, and that's frightening, you should wear a helmet! It begins at 10 a.m., but people start lining up at 7 a.m. Last year there were 200 people there at 7 a.m.! We let customers in 100 at a time.
"The Sidewalk Sale is kept entirely outside the store. Nothing inside the store is on sale, we keep it quite separate.
"We do have Men's Shopping Nights every Monday night in December. Painless shopping! We wrap the presents for them. Sometimes wives will send husbands in, and they will already have chosen a few items. From these items the men can make their selection.
"Last year we were selected to decorate Waterdown's Holiday House, sponsored by the Hamilton/Burlington Junior League, the proceeds to go to breast cancer. It was a relatively new home, but very pleasant with lots of wood trim. We had fun with it, creating Kris Kringle's Hideway upstairs with elves hanging from the ceiling. Pulled out all the stops and trimmed every inch of that home! Five thousand people came through, and the charity made lots of money.
"And we helped organize the Santa Clause Parade but were so busy we forgot to do a float for ourselves!
"Every year there is a Victorian Festival; this year we're calling it the Harvest Festival and we'll have hay rides, pumpkin carving, school dancers and other entertainment.
"We are involved in a great deal of charity work in the community, donating time, product and money. Breast cancer is very important, and we just supported an auction by promoting the cause in our ads. We also work for CAVEAT and for AMNESTY and the staff supports at least one major Christmas fund raiser each year."
Kelly, not surprisingly, is a member of the Victorian Festival Committee and the Waterdown Business Development Association.
Advertising includes a quarterly newsletter and carefully chosen newspaper appearances mainly in nearby Burlington and Hamilton. Kelly's business and personal routine is demanding, so it's quite logical that she met her husband to be, Chris Fowler, an advertising and marketing man, while building an ad campaign.
Kelly has always had an enterprising spirit. After putting herself through the Business School of the University of Guelph teaching tennis, she went to Australia for a year, then New Zealand, Fiji and other points south, teaching along the way and running a hostel for a short spell. It was when she returned to Canada that she bought her first store in Burlington, "a greetings card and gift store, 1,400 square feet, called Special Occasions." It was her need for greater challenge that led her to Waterdown and The Willow Tree three years later.
Twenty-nine year old Kelly just won more accolades, the Flamborough Region Award for Business Achievement. "It really feels good to be recognized by your peers and the community," she smiled.