Living Rooms lures customers with good food fine furniture & creative advertising
Twenty-one years ago, entrepreneur Dell Texmo was a tenured Professor of English at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland, just about as far east as you can get without wetting your toes in the Atlantic. "It was more of a lark than a serious career move" when she took a year off and went to England to buy a couple of containers of antique kitchenware and furniture, "really old stuff. I always had an inclination towards cooking, gadgets and antiques".
With a partner, Dell ran flea markets, sold shares to friends, and invested $5,000 of their own money to open a combination restaurant and gourmet kitchenware outlet in an old tailor's shop in downtown St. John's. "It was full of antiques, sewing machines, 30 sets of top hats with leather carrying cases, swallow tail coats, marvelous stuff!" They called it Upstairs, Downstairs, dining room up, shop down. Immediately successful, both shop and restaurant were always full.
Soon the partners needed more space and, at just the right moment, a converted warehouse on the waterfront, The Murray Premises, became available. "It has huge ship's knees' beams, curved with the natural bend of the original trees across the ceiling and down the sand-blasted brick walls. We were the first tenants." A great ambiance for antiquarians!
With more than 5,000 square feet at their disposal, Dell opened Living Rooms, her partner Speakeasy, a wine-bar/restaurant. Upstairs, Downstairs was sold within a year, and Dell melded the kitchenware line into Living Rooms' floor and shelf space.
The partners productively and amicably separated their interests in 1980 and, five years later when Speakeasy closed, Dell renovated, creating a large furniture showroom with the new 30 seat Living Rooms Cafe at its far end. People sit, eat, chat, contemplate the furniture and frequently buy it. She felt that the combination of "the two greatest pleasures of the contemporary consumer, dining and shopping, was what had always been special about the operation. While many businesses are restaurants and many are retail outlets, I don't think many are both. While some gift shops sell a few pieces of furniture to display giftware, and some furniture stores sell accessories to complement their furniture, few have full departments in both areas. We carry, in addition to furniture and giftware, full lines in kitchenware, decorative accessories, silk flowers, wallpapers and fabrics, lace panels and lace by the yard, local crafts and select souvenirs, jewelry, crystal, dinnerware, cutlery, books, cards and wrap. We have both a Bridal Registry and a Shower Registry."
In a struggling economy, with a severe downturn in Newfoundland's fishing industry, Dell's entrepreneurial skills have enabled her to take advantage of unique opportunities. Landlords needed to fill empty spaces and Dell's negotiations have led to lower rents, even free rent, start-up assistance, desirable locations and high percentage rent thresholds.
In 1991, she opened Dining Rooms in Churchill Square, a residential mall "frequented by our core clientele". In St. John's Village area, she opened another Living Rooms in 1993, three outlets in three quite different locations. All are thriving.
At The Murray Premises, Dell gained access to more than half a dozen unoccupied spaces for showrooms and warehousing which, at the cost of only heat and light, is the distribution center for the other two shops.
She believes that customers are attracted by a "full store, lots of goodies, always stuff to discover, humor, funny cards, competence, service, style and success!"
The Cafe is "exactly the sort of place I try to find when I'm in another city, interesting food, imaginatively prepared, quick, inexpensive, no pretensions." Many of the Cafe's most popular dishes are drawn from cookbooks sold at Living Rooms, their prices quoted on the menu. She also provides the calorie and fat content of entrees, not her luscious desserts!
In 1996, Dell won the Retail Council of Canada's Excellence in Retail Award, Advertising and Promotion. She described her Frequent Buyer Program. "We initiated it in 1992 and it was extremely successful. Essentially, we asked our customers to keep their sales receipts from any of our three stores or the Cafe. We gave them a printed one pound brown paper bag for storage. When they totaled $500 before taxes, we gave them a $50 gift certificate to spend at any of our shops. It worked well as a device to ensure customer loyalty. It was a reward for that loyalty, it made the customer feel special, and it gave us pleasure to be able to give something back to them. More than 1,000 gift certificates were distributed by the time we discontinued the program last year because of the harmonization of the tax system in Newfoundland."
Dell's unique cartoon-style advertising concepts and the scheduling of her ads are very carefully thought out. "For the past 10 years, a friend from Ottawa, an artist and a poet, comes to St. John's for a week every six months to work with me. We aim to catch the eye and appeal to the imagination." She runs her Shipping News ads on a weekly basis. The copy is informal, informative, highlighting the "new, excitingly priced merchandise pouring through our portals". Other ads include "Living Rooms to the Rescue" which tells the story of a customer's predicament and how Living Rooms solved all her problems, well, almost all her problems. Then there's "The Last Minute Club", "The Wish List Registry" and "The Christmas Shopping Solution", highly effective every one.
Last year, Dell was named a finalist for the Lifetime Achievement Award, Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. She offers some advice for wannabe retailers. "Open a business that involves doing what you like to do -- and ultimately getting paid for it. I opened a kitchenware shop because I liked cooking, liked gadgets. It expanded to furniture and decorative accessories because I love all sorts of merchandise, love decorating.
"Go it alone, independence is good. Pay your advisors, but keep the company for you. It can work for you in the same way you work for it. Things like travel, vehicles, merchandise can then be perks of the business, at your discretion to take or not. With respect to money, I've always left it in the company and only draw what I need, which keeps the bank happy.
"Fun -- shopping for new things, for bargains. Competing against our previous year, against ourselves. Having customers get excited by the same stuff that excited me. Finding a way to promote merchandise that really works. Being successful is more fun than the alternative.
"Retailing as a career for women is stimulating, challenging, interesting, buying and selling all kinds of nice stuff to play with, to be your own boss, not have to answer to anyone, shape your own destiny. It's sort of like housekeeping done on a large scale; you make some sacrifices and attempt to make it into the very best it can be, just like a baby! Women have the sensitivity, the intuitive intelligence. They put aside their own immediate concerns to put the business first, again just like a baby or a child. Women last longer and have a highly successful ride."
We asked if she had ever missed teaching. Said Dell, "Selling is a lot like teaching, you are explaining, defining. With selling you are teaching and with teaching you are selling. You meet a lot of people in both professions. In retailing you need so many different skills, accounting, creativity and people skills, systems skills. I have had to learn all kinds of things I would not have needed if I'd stayed teaching. I have no regrets!"
Living Rooms received the Award of Merit for Eastern Canada in the 1997 Retailer of the Year Awards organized for the past 22 years by the national Canadian Gift and Tableware Association. Judged by five industry experts from a field of 500 nominations, criteria are visual presentation, business achievements, advertising and promotions, community involvement, quality of nomination packages and credit standing. The CGTA represents more than 1,500 companies involved in manufacturing, distributing, importing and exporting.