Is the era of the big box retailer coming to a close?
At least two small businesses in Kemptville think so, and there appears to be research to back them up.
In 2021, PwC Canada reported that, “Canadians are adapting to supply chain delays, seeking out socially responsible retailers and using their purchasing power to support the local economy.” In 2016, the Harvard Business Review warned that “big box retail stores are losing relevance, while e-commerce and specialty stores grow in appeal.”
What is that appeal? By all accounts, it’s old-fashioned personalized service, a phenomenon that has been stoked by the “buy local” movement and possibly by the isolation wrought during the pandemic and the resulting need for personal connection.
The Stevens Creek Decor Centre owned by Will and Rowena Pearl and the Kemptville Bedding Outlet with owner Tim Lucas are riding the wave of that burgeoning awareness.
However, battling the big guys is not always easy. One thing that stands out for both Pearl and Lucas is the lack of interest from suppliers.
“I asked one of the wallpaper companies, ‘Why has nobody called on us?’ and she was like, well, because nobody else has opened an independent paint store for the last five or six years in Eastern Ontario,” says Pearl at Stevens Creek, which specializes in wall and window coverings.
“I’ve had to call suppliers two and three times just to get a response. I don’t understand. I mean, suppliers are complaining they don’t have any sales but when you call them they don’t want to sell to you,” adds Lucas.
He would like to carry all Canadian products but says in the bedding industry most items are made in Asia. So far, he’s found Canadian-made pillows and comforters and has snapped them up. Lucas says he maintains reasonable pricing, orders anything a customer asks for and never overwhelms people with aggressive sales pitches.
It took a back injury to nudge him out of the construction industry and into the executive business administration program at Willis College during the pandemic. Lucas started the bedding store in November 2021 and is already doing better than breakeven.
“I thought the pandemic was slowing down and Kemptville is growing and November and December were great, but January and February were awful and then in March gas prices went up and that just killed us,” says Lucas, adding that since May sales have picked up again.
He’s moving his store to the Kemptville Mall and hopes that better visibility and a larger space will pay off. “Our new place is nearly three times the size of this,” says Lucas, which will allow him to carry the goose down comforters he doesn’t have the room for right now.
It was the pandemic that pushed Pearl into opening a new showroom after having run his business in Kemptville since 2016.
“I don’t know why I did it during COVID. If I’m going to be honest, it was a little bit goofy. I just knew it would end and I thought it would end sooner,” says Pearl. Before the pandemic, he had a small shop that was more of a consultancy office than storefront.
“When COVID hit, I could no longer have anybody in that space. It was a small space, not conducive to social distancing, and I always had the plan to do this eventually,” Pearl shrugs, indicating his new showroom on Hwy. 43.
Until Pearl opened in his new location, Kemptville didn’t have a specialty decor, paint or window treatment store. In fact, there isn’t another store like Pearl’s in the region.
“Demand has been high. The housing market has been good, so business has been good, visibility has been good. We’re doing business from Gananoque to Cornwall to Ottawa, so we’re right in the centre of things,” he says.
Pearl carries Cloverdale Paint products, a family-owned Canadian paint brand. The window coverings side is supplied by Hunter Douglas, a well-known brand, but American. “I wish we could get everything from a Canadian supplier, but I can’t, it’s just the nature of that market,” says Pearl. “We only sell North American products.”
Pearl is a third-generation window covering specialist, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncle. He got his start as a custom drapery track-maker and installer in Hamilton at Artistic Drapery Ltd. and went on to work for Riopelle Drapery, then spent nearly seven years with Lowe’s when it came to Canada.
Pearl has another ace up his sleeve: he’s married to the queen of paint.
“When I decided to do the paint store, it was with the intention that Rowena would take care of that side of the business,” explains Pearl.
“I have that background in paints and wallpaper, but I think what a lot of people come for is my colour-matching,” says Rowena Pearl. “I do my own formulas and I can get the exact match, I even match stains.”
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