Canada's largest to-the-trade showcase helps retailers close sales in a non- threatening, information rich atmosphere.
The International Centre is something of an institution in the Greater Toronto Area. Since its many doors opened in 1972, the facility has more than doubled in size. In excess of two million people flow through its Halls in the course of any given year, visiting 100-plus of Canada's largest trade and consumer shows and events.
Unlike other exhibition facilities in North America, the International Centre also houses Canada's Furniture Mart, more than 65 permanent showrooms representing approximately 80 home furnishings manufacturers. These showrooms, of course, open for business during the bustling, order-writing annual August and January Furniture Markets and the huge Canadian Gift and Tableware Shows which run concurrently.
But, unique in North America, many of these same showrooms retain coordinators who welcome designers and their clients as well as the general public, on average, two or three days each week throughout the year. The Mart has been called a "Browser's Paradise". Consumers have been known to bring fabric swatches, paint chips, sketches of difficult spaces and their wide-ranging imaginations for consultation at the Mart. Many coordinators are designers themselves or manufacturers' representatives, and they offer advice on styles, colors and placement. And, vital to the industry, sound product knowledge. Like what's inside sofas, how mattresses are constructed, ways to judge quality in wood or metal furniture and maintenance of fabrics and leathers.
Since no sales other than to the retail trade are permitted at the Mart, an interesting and mutually profitable partnership has evolved between retailers and manufacturers. The Mart has developed VIP passes in a trendy lime green, carefully designed to include retailer's and showroom's names and phone numbers, and plenty of space for product information on the back. This is how the system works. When a customer shops a retail store seeking, for example, a Concordian leather sofa, s/he might fall in love with a particularly lovely style, but dislikes the color shown on the floor. The sales person would then suggest a visit to the Mart, "to see the manufacturer's full range". The customer is dazzled by shapes, leather, fabric and Carmela Perri's charm, and picks the perfect sofa for the family's livingroom. Carmela completes the VIP pass, and sends the pre-sold customer right back to the retailer with detailed information about the product of choice which he then orders for his customer. Everyone wins!
Carmela's retailer frequently is Lloyd Schmidt, proprietor of Smitty's, "presently looking to expand our four store chain in a number of areas." Smitty's locations are Barrie, Hanover, Pickering and the 44,000 square foot Cambridge store, his largest outlet. Demographics are ages 35 to 70, family income levels $45,000 to $85,000. Lloyd believes in the Mart. "It's an extension of our showrooms. Customers appreciate seeing the manufacturer's entire line rather than the one or two suites the retailer has on his floor. Or they look at a catalogue with us and like a piece we don't have. If they want to see a bigger piece of a fabric, for example, the coordinator can help them. They can learn how the product is made. They see the pride of the representative in their product. It's beneficial to both the manufacturer and the retailer. And the customer can make a decision in a much less threatening atmosphere; nobody's urging them to buy, there's no pressure! We've built a tremendous relationship with our suppliers."
Lloyd will celebrate his 50th anniversary next year. "My Dad started the store and I worked with him from the time I was a teenager. My enthusiasm today about the home furnishings industry, the possibilities and the direction it's going in is terrific."
Steve Smith, Sweet Dreams, runs "a chain of stores -- two links, two stores!" They are bedroom specialty stores as one might guess, "everything for the bedroom -- suites, mattresses, linens, pillows, duvets, master and juvenile. Very deep, very aggressive." The original store is in Oshawa, Ontario, but both it and the Mississauga store were opened in the first two months "as opportunity presented itself, October of 1989." The Oshawa store is 2,500 square feet, Mississauga 12,000 square feet. "Demographics? Pretty well everyone. We do one room, we do it for everyone, very contemporary, very traditional or right down the middle."
Steve has worked with Edna Long, Simmons' showroom coordinator. "Edna is a perfectionist, an absolute professional. If we have a customer looking for a sofa bed, she might examine our six sets and say, 'Is that all you have?' We would send her to Edna, who would show her a huge array of products and fabrics. Edna does all the work for me, then sends them back with a selection and a price. The consumer knows she's speaking with a person who really understands the line, a no pressure situation, very effective. We should clone Edna!"
A Special Place is another two-store chain, this owned by a mother and daughter team. "My mother started the business as an antique shop in 1974," said Paula Clairman. It evolved over four or five years; first we brought in the occasional wingback chair or chaise and now we have an eclectic look, specializing in upholstered furniture together with a selection of accessories, lamps, beds and bedding, custom duvet covers, window treatments. All the people working in the store with us are designers, so they provide advice as well as furniture to the consumer. Our customers are upper scale-yuppies, late 20s to retired people doing condos. We also have a selection of furniture for a lower budget, for example, a sofa around $1,000, and we can put together a look at this price point, the decorator look without hiring an outside decorator!"
One Special Place is located at Yonge and Davisville in downtown Toronto, the second in a concept Mall, "everything to do with the home", the Pickering Home & Leisure Centre.
"Our relationship with the Mart is a two-way street. We work with Artage," (occasional furniture, glass, wrought iron and wood)" Leeazanne" (accessories and occasional) "and Ren-Wil." (pictures and mirrors). During the year, our decorating consultants sometimes take clients with them to see merchandise; it's a lot easier to make a sale from a showroom than from a catalogue! It works very well. I like the concept of the VIP passes."
Charterhall is a custom orientated store in Kitchener, Ontario. Owner Paul Wayne told us they trade with the surrounding towns of Guelph, Waterloo and Cambridge as well, their customers preponderantly in the 40 to 60 age range. "We have an art historian on staff, and do antique restoration and custom framing and design." said Paul.
"We take tapestries from off-shore and frame them." His grandfather was a cabinetmaker in the United Kingdom, and his great grandfather a retailer in Newcastle, England.
"We, too, like to regard the Mart as an extension of our own showroom. We deal with Susan Gerus of Via Furniture; she's hardworking, honest, knows her company's product line and communicates well. There's a psychological benefit in seeing more of a line and seeing the face of the manufacturer independently of the store. Susan represents us directly with the customer, and also represents the factory. There's an element of trust. When you're asking someone to spend $5,000 of their hard earned after tax money, it reduces the perceived risk."
Dorothy Gregory of Ennisclare, a beautiful 35,000 square foot mid to high end store in Oakville, Ontario, handles accessory buying. Also the wife of owner John Gregory, Dorothy is excited about Ennisclare's rapid expansion. Customers flock to Ennisclare from the entire region west of Toronto -- Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton, and as far away as London and Ingersoll. "When customers come through the door they're very surprised at our vast range of goods. We really try to work with our customers and if they tell us they're looking for something specific which we don't have on the floor, we go to our sources at the Mart to find what they're looking for, or a suitable alternative. Millie Lax of Leeazanne especially has a huge range. Customers appreciate visiting the source; we explain that it's a special privilege we're able to extend to them and it keeps them happy. The Mart system is good."
The International Centre's General Manager, Gail Bernstein, has 23 years with the Mart. "People have become far more educated," she said. "There's a greater sense of personal style and expectation. Many more people look upon furnishings as a visual extension of themselves.
"The Mart's trade showrooms have become even more important to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. The showrooms are neutral territory where the consumer can get advice with no pressure. It's a wonderful opportunity, an inflow/outflow, for them to deepen their knowledge, then go back to their retail store and buy. Dealing with a representative of the manufacturer, they can talk with a real expert about features and benefits, what makes a piece worth the money, just as one would about a car at an automotive show.
"The unique situation we have at the Mart, an ingathering of manufacturers in a trade showroom complex, has not proved economically feasible elsewhere. We have a huge advantage over other Marts with more than 100 events running at the Centre annually. Each and every visitor to these shows has an opportunity to be exposed to home furnishings as well; after all, they all go home after the event to spaces filled with furniture. There's an affinity.
"Furniture industry people have traditionally been wrapped up with the idea that their customer is the retailer. But a true trade showroom can be used for more than just selling furniture. It can create brand awareness, and test market new lines. It's a fantastic opportunity for extensive market research.