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Eaton's Comes Full Circle

Furniture World Magazine


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Buying and selling to meet each customer's needs... again!

"A hundred years ago," reported Carl Swan, Eaton's General Merchandise Manager, "Timothy Eaton knew every one of his customers by name. Over time, that closeness was diminished, we became store managers rather than customer managers. Now we've almost come full circle with electronic retailing which increases our ability to merchandise effectively. We know our customer again, intimately, what she bought and when she bought it. With statistical data and new technologies, we can merchandise to her directly, meet each customer and personalize the experience. We can be less worried about products and more worried about our customer and satisfying her needs."

Carl Swan came home to Eaton's Toronto, a respected 100 store plus chain from coast to coast, Halifax to Vancouver, in May, 1994. Born in Belleville, Ontario, an economics and business graduate of University of Toronto, Carl took his first step on the career ladder with IBM, converting Eaton's to computer systems. He joined Eaton's as a systems engineer and worked in research, operations, men's group merchandising and store management.

In 1979, he met Lou Sklar who was "looking for a marketing person", became Sklar-Peppler's Vice President Marketing, later Executive Vice President.

Carl opened the US for Sklar. In 1990, as President Of Gimson Slater, he went to Tupelo, Mississippi, an "enjoyable" four year stint. "It's easier to do business in the United States, the ambiance is 'business friendly', but I came back to Canada because I needed a change. I thrive on challenge. Eaton's is magic to me. I love retailing, the rapidity, fast innovation, faster pace, the competition."

His present direction, now well under way, is the reorganization of Eaton's merchandising division. Purchase classifications will reflect the way the target customer buys the product rather than the more typical departmentalization. "Each area will have its own buyer," explained Carl, "It's logical -- home accents, lamps, pictures, mirrors; then various rooms, the bedroom, dining room, family room, living room and so on.

"And we buy as a merchandising team. Our Fashion Director puts together a total look and that is translated to the floor each season, following a variety of themes.

"We're promoting on a seasonal basis with lifestyle fashion books, distributed through newspapers and at the stores. This is supplemented by newspaper advertising to convey a sense of urgency, image rather than hard sell. We use television and radio too, but focus on the books -- they're keepers."

Eaton's defines their target customer as female, upwardly mobile "a little more affluent", with good taste and probably somewhat time compressed. She works, has a family and has little time to shop. And she is now the primary decision Maker for the family.

"Time is the big thing today, not just price, not just fashion, not just quality. It's the ability to conserve the customer's time. If department stores didn't exist, someone would invent them today. They provide one-stop shopping! The consumer can buy apparel needs, children's needs, her husband's shirts AND furniture. She plans a shopping trip especially to visit with us!

"It's important that she have consistency in taste level in apparel and in home furnishings. Bloomingdales started it in the '60s and '70s.

"Furniture is still considered a very stressful thing to buy," he continued. "You live with it for a long time, and it's difficult for the consumer to judge quality when they can't see how it's made. We place home furnishings in room settings, totally accessorized. A lot of stores still line up furniture on the floor like soldiers, and that makes it difficult to visualize in one's own home, adding to the stress. We have good warranties. Consumers trust us and have a high degree of faith in Eaton's as a fashion authority.

"Part of our job as merchants is to reduce customer stress. We must provide customers with a feeling of confidence that they are making the right decisions. The Eaton family still owns the business, and they instill in all of us the need to be very sensitive to the customers and to maintain the vital taste level."

Eaton's works on an everyday value price policy, no high/low pricing. "If the customer buys an item today, it will be the same price six months later.

"Fashion is no longer confined to apparel, it is the way one lives, the whole lifestyle. This is conveyed throughout each individual store nationally. For example, Ralph Lauren began as a men's wear designer, then women's wear and now home furnishings as well. Calvin Klein did the same thing. Now, here in Canada, fashion designer Simon Chang has created five collections for Cooper Brothers, a custom upholstery company, so we'll have a consistent taste level in fashion fabrics, in women's apparel, in bedding and in home furnishings. The overlap carries the customer from one level to the next.

"Canadian manufacturers have learned to be very creative. Free trade has forced them to carve niches for themselves in the North American marketplace. They've always been able to produce smaller runs, and this gives them a very strong competitive edge particularly with the current low Canadian dollar.

"Bob Wexler has just designed a new collection for Sklar Peppler. He is one of the most talented individuals in both design and marketing I've ever worked with. He one of the great contemporary people, with a global sense for one of the most difficult sectors in the marketplace.

"These people are doing the right things at the right time in the right place!"

We asked Carl to, look down the road".

"Excitement! The new age way is electronic retailing, of course. We'll develop different retailing formats. One day there'll be 155 ways to buy furniture! Telemarketing has already become big in the States. It's not as strong yet in Canada, yet it's coming.

"Independents will continue to be a very important distribution channel. Chain stores will become more focused on their customers. Virtual reality will come into the home. And more retailers will break out of the supply chain to work directly with manufacturers on an EDI basis.

It's a whole new world, full of opportunity for everyone!"

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.