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Retail Success Stories - Part 14

Furniture World Magazine


Some three decades ago, a budding home furnishings entrepreneur of adventurous nature set sail from New Zealand to conquer the Americas. She surveyed the scene in the City of Vancouver, and decided to move on across the Straits of Georgia to an island to the west with direct access to the Pacific. Victoria was far less claustrophobic for her innovative imagination, the capital of the province and home of Tofino’s legendary surfers’ beaches and the mystic lands of the Haida Gwaii.

Sue Toby focused on a promising property once a warehouse, then a brewery, then a blacksmith shop. It was close to Victoria’s docks, the vibrant Inner Harbour of Vancouver Island, now recognized as “The Design District”. She’s just down the block from the iconic Swan, an ebullient, up-market boutique pub/hotel, replete with a multitude of paintings and sculptures and a large and constantly flowing eclectic patronage. If you keep going and turn the corner, you’re right in the middle of Canada’s oldest China Town with all its sights, sounds and fragrances. And, constant money-in-the-pocket tourist traffic.

But there have been some negatives, too, in the heady mix that needed more than a duct tape response. There were some socio-cultural hurdles to jump, startling realities partially brought about by dramatic economic shifts. As well as the affluent Baby Boomers, comfortably off retirees and the mega-rich who have driven property values sky-high on the West Coast, British Columbia’s famously equable climate, the mildest in Canada, also beckons the out of work, homeless population who found “living rough” in Victoria’s neighbourhoods a more tolerable alternative. There were times when Sue, her daughters and their staff, had to make their way through a crowd of “between 20 to 60 street people around our building every day which, of course, made our clients afraid to come into our store!  Actually this was my eureka moment. Every day that was slow, we were driven to work even harder on our website, as well as developing our furniture packages that are still so successful today.”

Insideout was and is a home furnishings jewel. The name? Well, Sue hails from Down Under. Her concepts tend to reflect a somewhat unique point of view. The best semantic interpretation of the name “Insideout” is perhaps its open-ness, the owner’s willingness to let it all hang out when it comes to flexing with the times, tough though they may be. Seeing trends and portents for what they are... and might soon be! ...and juggling every detectable positive aspect of that sometimes esoteric mix.

A customer reaction to Insideout’s website, “I’ve never seen so many wonderful /beautiful/insightful home furnishings on one website ever, ever before! Stunning! All my credit cards are itching!” Check it out, www.insideoutvictoria.com.

And what about the furniture packages? At the height of Sue’s most difficult time, “a local designer came to view our inventory; she had an assignment to fully furnish six resort homes for a major developer. She was concerned that my business was too small to have this capability, but I convinced her to let me try. Within three days I was able to assure her I could do it; within six weeks all the homes were complete, looked fantastic and sold shortly thereafter. This was the beginning of our packaging projects.

“We subsequently went directly to developers and told them about our service, that we had developed packages that would suit any size or style of condo or house. They contacted their clients who either wanted to furnish their suites for investment purposes and charge more for rent, or just welcomed the ease of being able to furnish their own new home, hassle free. It worked.

“Angie, one of my two beautiful daughters, gave up her real estate license three years ago to come and work with me. I’m a lucky woman to have her, and love that I get to work alongside my daughter every day. She is a natural. She keeps in regular contact with all the developers in Victoria and even Vancouver, talking to them about the added value these unique packages offer their present and potential clients. It’s such a great add on to their real estate sales.

“The cost of real estate is still very high in Victoria, but we are seeing a small rise in purchases over the past 10 months. Gradually there seem to be more confident buyers out there, and we are ready to jump into top-speed action the minute things pick up. We continue to do packages from time to time and the response is invariably the same, people love it!” Go to that great website, click on “Home Packages” and read all about it! Introduction, how it works, example packages, design portfolio, etc. A eureka moment indeed.

“The message is, don’t sit around and wait for the customer to come to you. Go find them!”
And the challenge is not to simply flex to the stresses of post-recession’s constantly changing scene, but encourage and help targeted demographics replace their negative vibes with positive energy, revitalizing, reawakening their attainable dreams.

“People are still holding on to their money, but not quite so tightly. We decided to assist them in loosening their pockets by exciting them with a new look, an entirely new concept, something that would generate the euphoria of falling in love! Over the past two years, we’ve changed everything in the store to reflect the theme ‘I’d Rather Be Living in the Hamptons’. Think (and see on our blog) lots of beautiful slip-covered furniture, mostly in washable white or cream fabrics, amazing cushions emblazoned with shells and sea creatures, lovely throws in delectable colours. We have wonderful signs that say ‘Welcome to the Beach!’ and ‘Summertime on the Cape’ (especially fun during the winter months!) all in the soft blues of the ocean and sunshine yellows. We’re really running with the theme, so we’re buying a lot more sustainable, eco-friendly organic products, sea grass rugs, baskets and even sea grass coffee tables, some in the shape of bongo drums. I’ve been successful with teak root coffee tables as well. From Indonesia, the roots of the teak tree, kiln dried. The artisans craft the root branches to make table legs. Some of the larger ones are used for dining tables. Really beautiful, and a ‘statement’ and our customers just love them.

“We feel that our demographic, our everyday customer, outside the furniture packages, remains the baby boomer, men and women, all across the spectrum. Many of our customers have not been affected by the economic downturn; they simply need to be encouraged and inspired to continue to buy. The older ones don’t see retirement as an option. But generally speaking she/he is tired and just doesn’t have a lot of time or the confidence to put this inspiring and comfortable styling together.” Sue laughed, “Her/his kids have left home, the dog died, their professional life is stressful and they just want to melt into their beautiful living room at the end of a long day with a glass of wine in hand. They always wanted white or cream but never had the courage when the kids were still at home. We’ve introduced a way of living that makes them feel special, happy, snuggly. It’s a great environment to be in, kind of like pretending to be somewhere else.

“One of the great things about this furniture styling is that both sexes love it. As soon as we’re able to seduce them into sitting in it, it’s a done deal. They just smile.

“Angie is constantly visiting clients at their homes to help them achieve the look, and feel they’ve made the right choices, assisting with paint colours, rugs, and other accessories. She is a no nonsense girl with the ability to make the process comfortable and fun. They love her easy going nature and bright ideas that help to make their homes special.”

Sue and Angie were delighted with the opportunities to augment “The Hamptons” at the Vegas Show. “It made our creative juices run wild. A more up-beat and positive attitude all ‘round. To us it seemed the trends were towards natural fabrics, lots of hemp, cotton and linen, jute, sea grass and fascinating bamboo rugs.

“And then, of course, there is our ‘Yummy Mummy’ chair! It has been one our best sellers for the past several years and is still alive and kicking. Everyone deserves this chair, not just the breast-feeding market! Think instead of a group of people who want to be cuddled without child attached. Once we get a customer to sit in a ‘Yummy Mummy’, a giggly smile invariably appears on their face and they ask what it’s made of. We tell them love, hugs, clouds and down. We try to keep seven on the floor at all times, all in different fabrics/leathers, so no matter where you are in the store, one is close by.”

The use of media has changed, too. “In the last two years we’ve come to realize that we just cannot afford to advertise in the conventional way, newspapers, radio, television, etc., so we have become more creative and use social media, e-mail being one of the most important. And, of course, our website, our blog and twitter. We invested in a really good camera and we take great photos of our products for the blog. For example, it’s a great way to display a domestically made product, writing a little story about the wood and where it came from. Our blog has only been active for a few months, but we are definitely getting a positive response. It sure is a learning curve, but one we can clearly see is of benefit.

“I’ve also discovered the use of group e-mails within our Design District. My idea is that each store has its own e-mail list. We decide on a weekend, and all the stores e-mail to our clients that we have some sort of sale or promotion, new items in the store, whatever. With all the stores involved, before long thousands of customers have received an e-mail from someone in the area inviting them to visit! And it doesn’t cost a cent! I’m still working on other stores to join me in this venture and thankfully there are a lot of forward-thinking people who want to be part of the action.”

Sue believes there is a real trend in Victoria and environs to buy locally made products. “However, we usually say ‘North American’ made, as we have so much to offer on both sides of the border. Drop shipping is easier as it can either come to me or go to you for no extra delivery charge. We are very hands on about telling the ‘local’ story in our store. We do sell a lot of international products, too, and I do not believe that emphasizing locally made products will detract from my other furniture and accessories. I really do get the vibe that people are very interested in local, but it is still about the dollar. We have lowered our prices by not including the shipping on certain products to keep the prices down; seems to be working in this market.

“In my experience, the early thirties to the baby boomers are most concerned about domestically made furniture. We preach the most successful message, that domestically made products keep jobs in Canada, they support the economy, etc.

“But again, directed to the same demographic, they want the new, the eco-friendly, the exciting, the unique product wherever it comes from!

Regular customers drop by constantly to see our latest inspirations. Many come in or phone us/e-mail us, to hear from us about the latest trends.

“For example, from the Netherlands, one of our great successes is a compelling high-end upholstery line of woven wire pieces, developed originally by Lloyd Loom. The ‘loomed’ fabric is composed of natural fibre twisted into twine over the metal core. This core adds strength and bounce to the upholstery unlike a typical wicker. Loom does not split or crack and has no ends or joins sticking out. The beech wood frames are hand bent and air dried for nine months prior to upholstering. The line can be used for both residential and contract applications and is ISO tested for durability and stability on a regular basis by an outside lab. It’s completely assembled by hand, and only environmentally safe water colours are used. A wonderful product!

“And here’s another unique product, this one really close to home! My very creative husband, Craig, has been working along with me, diligently putting more ‘local’ into the store. He’s been making the most amazing coffee tables from 200 to 300 year old fir beams and coal mining wheels. The fir comes from old commercial buildings, was milled in the early 1900s, then re-milled this year by Craig. We’re always on the lookout for old wheels, mainly using old coal cart wheels from train tracks. We’ve found some wagon wheels, too, that look fantastic. The coffee tables were an instant hit. One man was so intrigued that he ordered one immediately, then brought his wife in to collaborate on the planning of a whole new living room inspired by the table.

“Craig has also been making dining tables from the fir, candle holders from the sides of wine barrels, and using the tops and bottoms of the barrels to craft Lazy Susans.

“So you can see the local shop movement is in full gear in Victoria and the tables, of course very much a local product, work very well. Our special customers really seem to want/need a story about the products they’re purchasing, and Craig’s pieces tell a lovely story. Amongst other things, they love that the wood has never left the island!

“Also, I’ve started to buy fabulous, old pieces of furniture to put in the store. We paint them in sea foam colours and, once again, the histories of the pieces are great selling features. And they add a fresh twist to the slip covered look.”

As you might expect, Insideout’s community involvement is a tad “different”, perhaps more sensitive. “We’ve worked with single Moms for years,” Sue told us. “Back in the beginning of things we let them pay off a piece of furniture on layaway, so all year they would save up and pay a bit at a time. Then, at the end, we would surprise them with a discount and say, OK; you now have $200 or whatever the amount was, to decorate your table with dishes, etc. This was a lot of fun for all of us!

“Also, now when many of our customers are ordering new furniture they’re concerned because they still have lovely furniture in their homes they’re replacing; they ask what should they do with it? And then we tell them that we work with single Moms and Dads who would love to own a nice sofa, etc. It’s a great way to recycle.”

The Provincial government is now working with citizens of Victoria to find solutions for the homeless who once populated The Design District and the nearby docks. The Victoria Cool Aid Society provides shelter and transitional housing through Streetlink Emergency Services. The new, purpose-built Rock Bay Landing facility was constructed “to the highest green standards including solar panels on the roof, heat recovery, superior insulation and much more” with 84 permanent shelter beds, units for family shelter, and soon 23 new transitional units, with expanded space for overflow conditions. Training workshops and computer access is available to residents as well as counseling. A long term problem and solution, and one to which the Insideout family gladly contribute. And there’s a new source of inspiration this summer, an anonymous couple have just donated $30 million to an expanded dream, this to pay for the operation of a supportive housing project. Things are looking brighter.

There’s a wedding coming up, the Toby’s daughter Maria, sister Angie as her attendant. A good percentage of the population of New Zealand will soon swell the population of Victoria for the celebration. Insideout will continue its exuberant operation during the event in the care of four trusted friends! A reflection of new times, new horizons, a fresh approach to an optimistic future.

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.