Fifth generation provides innovative home furnishings services in their landmark London building and on the web at www.kingsmills.com
It takes vision, bang-on timing and an adventurous streak to build a landmark enterprise. “Hard work, too,” said Tim Kingsmill, fifth generation of the feisty family from Tipperary.
For almost 140 years, the Kingsmills have had their feet firmly planted at 130 Dundas Street in the heart of London, Ontario's historic business district. Founder Thomas Frazer Kingsmill had married his boss, the smart and remarkable Ardagh in the 1860s, a widow with three children and a draper's shop to run. The couple sold the store and emigrated from Ireland, first to the U.S., then Toronto, Canada, where “TF” worked for two years in a wholesale dry goods business. The family moved to London when the southwestern Ontario city was at a peak of prosperity generated by both the arrival of the Great Western Railway and the agricultural supply demands of the Northern Army during the U.S. Civil War. The oil refineries in London east added extra glitter to the economy.
TF was an energetic 25 years of age in 1865 when he rented a small (19 feet x 120 feet) storefront on the site of the present shop at an annual rental of $400, a considerable sum in those days. He had plenty of competition with 23 other dry goods stores located nearby, but TF stocked his store with the finest quality of linens, silks, cottons, muslins and lace available. He had a one-price-only policy, a hit with shoppers who were tired of Victorian bartering.
Kingsmill believed in playing it safe, so he acquired “a sideline” and also provided a healthy environment for his children. He bought 100 acres in what is now the centre of the city and until just recently the family operated the property as a dairy farm, specializing in Ayrshire cattle. There was a second farm, this one at London's outskirts. “The sales were part of a winding down process,” said Tim. No longer interested in farming, the Kingsmills realized a healthy profit on the valuable “city” property. Thanks to TF's foresight.
In 1911, there was a disastrous fire but, undaunted, TF quickly rebuilt. He opened a larger store on the same site and expanded his operation into another building next door. His new building became a town attraction, a two-storey structure in solid red brick, boasting a wrought iron verandah adorned with iron posts that he'd imported from Scotland.
He became a big employer with 225 workers in busy seasons. Hats were hot in the early 1900s and year 'round the millinery department alone boasted 40 busy assistants.
Christine Dirks in her Cityscapes column did her research well and discovered that “cash boys” had the task of running receipts to a central register where change was made and bills stamped. There were tailors who sewed both formal and everyday clothing for adults and children. But if you wanted to “buy only the fabric and sew the garment yourself, an employee would cut the cloth to the pattern pieces at no charge”.
Kingsmill anticipated the need to grow with the London housing boom of 1884, and erected yet another building on Carling Street right behind the Dundas Street store. In yellow brick, this was designed as a carpet warehouse with a central staircase and skylights. Linoleum and draperies were also on display. A very practical man, TF maximized the profitability of Carling Street by renting small offices to travelling sales representatives where they showed samples of their goods. The building remained in the family until 1960 when changing times suggested the need for a parking lot.
Fire again claimed the Dundas Street store in 1931 along with several adjacent properties. The founder's son, Thomas Ford, rebuilt this time, still on the original site, using the services of prominent London architect, O. Roy Moore. The store's four-storey footage with its local limestone Art Deco façade, absorbed several properties to the west.
Large display windows flank the entrance and, right inside the door, a striking, octagonal island showcase offers a changing scene of merchandise. Up on the fourth floor are skylights and, on the south face of the building, large windows provide natural light for customers to view the goods.
Preserved to this day, to the delight of both shoppers and tourists, is the pneumatic steel and brass tube system used to carry paperwork and change throughout the store, a 21st century rarity. The precursor to today's cash registers, it's still an efficient way to exchange foreign currency, correct errors and authorize credit at a central cashier. And a trip from the first to the fourth floor takes only about 17 seconds. An old-fashioned bell hook-up summons clerks (or Kingsmills) to the telephones, plain, ordinary black ones with dials.
A real live attendant runs the store's two vintage Otis-Fensom elevators, one for freight, one for passengers. Dolly Magee has been Kingsmill’s smiling greeter and information person for the past 15 years. She was previously superintendent of three apartment buildings, but, “When I saw the help wanted ad for this job I just knew it was the job for me. I was hired on a Friday 13th, but that day was a good omen. I greet people and let them know on what floors they can find everything. I also keep my eye on everything in the store, a sort of security, I guess. I also clean the elevator's brass constantly. Children are always keen (to operate the elevator) so I let them put their hands on the lever and they get to help me. 'Awesome!' they say. I have the best job in the best store in London.”
Kingsmills' interior décor extends the façade's Art Deco theme with tin ceilings, hardwood floors and restored original wood fixtures. There's a tiny mezzanine overlooking Carling Street and the main floor, furnished with a collection of a dozen patina-bedecked wooden desks, Kingsmill’s corporate heart. From this perch, office manager, Maria Scarpelli, with the family since 1984, “actually runs the place,” Tim told us. He assists, as does his father, Thomas Frederick, also TF. Fred, at 77, recently became Vice President and Secretary Treasurer, passing the Presidential baton to 50 year old Tim. But Fred is far from retired. “He comes in to the store every day, particularly when I'm away,” said Tim. And that's another story, a new slant on adventure.
Tim began to sail back in 1986. “I've always loved the outdoors probably partly because of the farms. After spending one summer cooped up in the store I made up my mind to find another outdoor activity.” He recalled a remarkable trip across the Atlantic, visiting Spain and Portugal and another long sail from South Africa to Fort Lauderdale. Tim volunteers as crew for a British company, specializing in the delivery of yachts, a “squadron of professionals”. Just after we spoke in mid-March, he took off for another jaunt, this one from France to the island of Tortola in the Virgin Islands.
Also holding the fort is Kingsmills' General Manager, Jim Hand. For three years now Jim has been a major factor in maintaining the landmark's image, particularly in the area of fashion advertising. Tim handles furniture promotion. “Jim came to us well experienced from Home Outfitters after 20 years in the industry and is a valuable team leader,” said Tim.
As you would expect, the Kingsmill approach to promotion is a mix of tradition and innovation. TF was The London Free Press' first commercial customer in the 1800s.
The team relies on suppliers for good visuals. “Canadel, for example, is on the web and we get all the photos we need from them. We appear regularly in The London Free Press. We do a lot of flyer inserts the same size as the paper. And our publicity is event driven. Our flyers cover March window coverings, the April spring sale, May carpets, June the Simmons mattress sale. And in September there will be special coverage of our 140th anniversary. We print 35,000 flyers for our November pre-Christmas sale.
“Our other events include wine tastings in March, and we recently mounted a Linda Lundstrom trunk sale. Our ads are designed with the help of the newspaper staff. We use some of our own talent for television commercials. Elaine Norris, who also manages the kitchen store, has become a familiar figure on local television. Rick Grevin, a radio personality, voices commercials too, and shooting is done on site.”
The four floors display home furnishings, fine china and collectibles and the Bridal Registry, women's, men's and children's fashions, cosmetics, linens, gifts, kitchen ware, luggage and much more. “Customers tend to take the elevator to the fourth floor and then walk down so they get lots of exposure to all our product lines.”
Kingsmills reach extends throughout all of southwestern Ontario, Stratford, Sarnia, Windsor, Chatham and Kincardine and farther afield, wherever the family's faithful customers have moved.
And there's a new way to visit Kingsmills even if you're based in Mississippi, Alaska or Timbuktu. “One of the most fantastic websites I've ever seen,” said customer Barbara Jones. (And if you're curious, log on right now at www.kingsmills.com.) A little more than two years ago Linda Lefor arrived on the scene to create and develop the system and now between 2000 and 4000 people visit the site daily. Internet purchases over $300 are shipped free and the store has sent goods as far away as California. “The site is constantly growing as we add new items,” Linda said, “but we are careful to keep the design simple, uncluttered and easy to use.”
The Bridal Registry is a popular feature. Each bride is given a user name and password so she can create and monitor her own registry page. Tim notes that 24/7 accessibility counteracts the demands of customers' busy lives. “And a suburbanite doesn't have to drive to downtown London to make a purchase.” Corporate gifts and gift certificates are often accessed on the net.
In-store sales have been positively impacted by the ease with which consumers can print off the visual of a dining room they like and then come in to see the set on the floor. Linda has woven 21st century magic with her virtual tours of every department and introduced a fun element into this truly accessible website.
The City of London's site has several mentions of Kingsmills, another attractive vehicle for the store's message. “We're well aware that the building is now an authentic tourist destination and we see people in the store every day enjoying the ambience. And making purchases!”
The Design Centre is a hive of activity on the third floor, staffed by Kingsmills' team of qualified and well-experienced designers who evolve décor on site or during in-home consultations. Right at hand, Oliver Cunningham presides over an Aladdin's cave of spectacular hand knotted and hand tufted Oriental rugs from China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.
Just as the Founder intended, Kingsmill’s works with fine suppliers. “Sligh for clocks and home office furniture, we have a nice assortment. And Gibbard Furniture Shops, Durham Furniture, Leda, Highland House, Brunetti, Villageois and Barrymore.” They have continued TF's preference for Royal Doulton and Waterford. Plus, for almost a decade now, quality Swarovski jewellery.
“All our major casegoods are pretty well dedicated to Canadian manufacturers. We do buy some occasional pieces from China but if it's a choice between the two options, I always buy Canadian; the quality is so much better.”
There is plenty of outreach to the community, presently the Dream of a Lifetime Lottery which benefits “local hospitals that have banded together. We're one of the main contributors of the secondary prizes, 700 of them!”
Service is another area where Kingsmill shines. “Barry Hall has been with us for 25 years and if there's any problem he visits the customer's house. Our reputation is very strong in this area.
“The future of Kingsmill is exciting and full of challenges. Ten years from now we will, of course, still be at our existing location. We'll be doing more and more business on the website and it will be more integrated.
“The economy in general is doing well but the furniture industry is perhaps a bit soft because of the housing boom. People are spending a lot of money on homes. And there are a lot of houses with empty rooms. They'll need to be filled. House first, then furniture. I agree with Bruce McPherson's (President of Gibbard Furniture Shops of Napanee, Ontario) belief that there's 'a pent up demand' for home furnishings”.
Tim's two ladies, wife Laurie, and 11-year-old daughter, Emily, both have talents that bode well for the future. Presently a systems analyst for London Life, Laurie has a passion for interior design. “Emily is already talking about coming into the business but she will probably major in business rather than agriculture as Dad and I both did. She excels in English.” Great for Kingsmills promotional thrust.
TF would be very pleased.