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Retail Success Profile: La Gallerie du Meuble

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Retail Profile: Higher-end home furnishings retailer celebrates 50th anniversary with champagne, mentoring and design competitions.

Long before I talked with him, I heard that Gilles Vaillancourt had some winning techniques up his sleeve. Or, at least, solidly integrated into his marketing strategy!

He’s just celebrated the 50th anniversary of La Galerie du Meuble, the enterprise his father, Charles C. Vaillancourt, established back in 1956 in Quebec City, and the event was conceptualized and executed with the panache you would expect.

In fact, it’s still ongoing. “We actually began in April this year. In September we’ll kick it off again, a ‘second wind’ and, most probably, it will run until December 31st.”

And that won’t be the end of it. “You see we launched a mentorship programme that involves 10 bursaries that will be awarded over 10 years,” he explained. The idea was to pair seasoned designers with newcomers with less than two years’ experience. “Together the teams will compete to create a family or living room vignette in one of our stores, using our furniture and accessories. The public is invited to visit us and vote for their favourite vignette, and the winners will share the prize of $5,000. There are 10 bursaries that will be given out over 10 years.”

Ten years? Time then for the 60th anniversary!

Another, understandably, very popular part of the celebration is champagne. Every Thursday evening, continuing through the weekend, champagne is served to all visitors to the stores. “People seem to like this,” said Gilles. “So we’ll carry on with this custom until the end of the year.”

La Galerie’s logos, stationery, truck signs were changed to mark the occasion, “Everything was rejuvenated!”

Preferred customer lists were used for invitations, as they are for other special promotions like product introductions. And 30-second television commercials were devised for the anniversary. The push involved La Galerie’s special Anniversary Collection, “contemporary/transitional, very young in styling,” said Gilles. Consumers were invited to come see the Collection and enter to win $50,000 in furniture, “no purchase necessary”.

Gilles communications approach is necessarily different in this unique location. Quebec City was once the centre of the empire of New France, that covered all of Eastern Canada and almost half of the current United States’ territory. French possessions in North America then reached from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes and from Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1791, it became the capital of Lower Canada and, since 1867 when Canadian Confederation came into being, the city has been the capital of the province of Quebec.

It was in 1608 that French explorer Samuel de Champlain established the settlement here, its name derived from an Algonquin word meaning, “where the river narrows”, the first permanent French presence in North America.

Like most major centres in the world, Quebec City owes its growth and existence to its strategic position on a major river leading to the ocean, and to its towering cliffs that dominate the St. Lawrence. The steep downhill streets and the manner in which many structures were built with walls and gates responding to the topography, now play a strong part in giving the city its charm and character.

Extraordinarily, in Canada’s officially bi-lingual nation, circa 2006, Gilles’ target demographic remains 95 percent French speaking, with less than three percent of the population foreign-born. “The other five percent of the citizenry is fluently bi-lingual.” None of La Galerie’s printed material is in English. And print is its most important communications tool.

“We decided we were not getting results from our direct mail efforts, so we turned instead to flyers and brochures. Every year we issue 18 eight-page brochures, using visuals from our various suppliers, 75,000 of them distributed through the newspapers. We also do print ads scheduled weekly, the size a little less than a full page.”

More on the demographics, Gilles told us his target clientele “would most probably be in the 35 to 60 range and, because of La Galerie’s longevity, we have children of the parents coming to our stores. We do not especially advertise to younger people. Family incomes range from $60,000 to $85,000/$90.000 up to $300,000/$400,000. Our reach? Ninety percent live and work within a 30-mile radius. The other 10 percent is scattered from Montreal, all the way to the Gaspe Peninsula and Chicoutami and a broad clientele that comes from afar.”

The Vaillancourt corporate history was the brainchild of Charles, Gilles father. At the time of conceptualization, he was manager of one of a chain of general stores in Quebec which also sold furniture. He was able to acquire some of the chain’s home furnishings lines and became sales representative for some of the finest manufacturers of the period. He then decided to employ other sales people, and they covered the province for him. It soon seemed appropriate to open a showroom in “an interesting structure in a part of old Quebec City that has a lot of heritage buildings”. Other storeowners were invited to bring in their clients to see the merchandise. “It simply grew into a furniture store! It is rather small, but we would never move it. We also have a 100,000 square foot service centre there now.”

There are three locations, the original store, “which we have expanded to 35,000 square feet. It is very contemporary. Across the street is Roche-Bobois. This is a specialty store with a decidedly European flavour, opened by Vaillancourt in 1972, the first of a chain that now totals 35 in North America. Roche-Bobois styling is high end, solid wood, Louis Philippe. “There are two lines,” said Gilles, “one contemporary,” very Italian, and the second is Provencal country. Both fabric and leather. The store is about 15,000-20,000 square feet.

“Then we have another store on Main Street in the City, our classic store.”

La Galerie has evolved over the years, every decade a landmark in styling. In the 1960s, “the artistic revolution”, the ‘70s, “freedom of expression”, the ‘80s, “a more modern era, more sparkle, more flash”. The 1990s, Gilles designates as “the cocooning era, when La Galerie opened its first ‘Espace La-Z-Boy’ to great success”. With the turn of the century, Vaillancourt recognized “Globalization, an explosion in the industry with a diversity of products”.

In the midst of an environment of 17th century charm, La Galerie has a website. “We work with a company called ‘Impact Research’ from Atlanta. They advised us to put a price on our products, that we would have better success if we did so. But it is hard to measure the effectiveness of the website. We have someone here who runs it on a day to day basis, but all our administrative enhancements are outsourced,” he told us. “Our room planner has proved to be very successful, a great tool.”

We talked about sources of La Galerie’s various lines. Gilles said, “The sources are changing and changing fast. Right now I would say our suppliers are 50 percent Canadian including the province of Quebec, 15 percent from Europe, 10 percent the United States and the rest from Asia, and that is growing.”

Sales are staged twice each year, one in January, one in the summer time, each lasting about two months.

Gilles thinks very highly of his sales people, “most of them designers”. We asked about key members of his staff and he replied, “We are a team, hands on, all of us, early and late. Our designers sketch the customers’ rooms from their descriptions and we also do a lot of house calls.

“Every morning at 8:00 we have regular meetings at the service centre. There’s a pep talk and we update one another. So from that time, early in the morning, we experience busy days.” He laughed, “Frequently my wife calls to remind me it’s 7:00 p.m. and that I should come home for dinner!”

The “team” believes in providing outstanding service. “We send a survey to all our customers when their furniture is delivered. It’s interesting that 30 percent say they heard/saw Vaillancourt from the media. But, an amazing 70 percent know of us from friends and family, by word of mouth, the most valuable form of communication there is.”

La Galerie works closely with the Kinsmen. “There’s an event every year, a model home that we design and furnish for them. We’ve been doing this for 20 years at least. There is a draw and their favourite charity benefits from it. We also work with Hospice to make sure that they have appropriate furniture in the rooms and waiting rooms.”

We asked that all-important question about the future. Gilles’ voice radiated confidence when he talked of “the great deal of construction going on in the city. Unemployment is at the lowest point in many years. People are optimistic. They take care of their homes and we take care of them. We are really happy with the business climate.

“You know, it’s fun to come to the office in the morning! The strength of the Canadian dollar is good for us, though unfortunately not for the manufacturers.

“What I hope we will see 10 years down the way will be even nicer stores, better training of our people, more styles. Perhaps for a different kind of furniture. I am definitely optimistic!”

Gilles chuckles when he talks about his greatest competition. “The travel industry is first on the list, then the imported car industry! After 9/11, the furniture business experienced a tremendous increase because people were not travelling as much.

“We decided that in order to compete effectively with travel we had to take action. So for our 50th anniversary, what did we do? We offered a pair of airplane tickets on purchases of $3000 or more! It’s working, too!”

If you can’t beat them, join them!

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.