By Tom Lassiter
Photos: © 2016 Alex Lukey. www.alexlukey.com.
Most people don’t think about buying outdoor furniture when there’s an excellent chance that the dog’s water bowl will ice over during the night. In early April, they need a little encouragement to mentally shed some layers and leap forward to the blissful Ontario summer.
|Can’t get away from that green! Here it highlights both Donna Tataryn and store co-owner Paul de Merlis.|
Before the flowers bloom and winter gear is stored away, motorists passing the corner of Yonge Street and Glengrove Avenue in Toronto get a strong reminder that summer’s coming. There, in a curbside space about the size of a modest patio, they see an outdoor furniture display that changes daily.
One day may bring a deep-seating group. The next may feature a platoon of chaise lounges, at ease and catching full sun. Bistro sets may follow, and then a dining group. Each day is different.
The sidewalk display, on one of Toronto’s best-known thoroughfares, is a seasonal feature at The Sign of The Skier.
“The product comes in and out every day,” says Donna Tataryn. She assists in purchasing furniture for the shop. A 15-year employee, she also works the retail side.
From October through March, as the store’s name suggests, the shop focuses on clothing and equipment for skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts. In 1983 the shop added casual furniture to provide some seasonal balance.
Bill Hefler founded The Sign of The Skier in 1971. At one time the owner of a hardware store, he saw potential in concentrating on the burgeoning winter sports market. A few years later, so the story goes, Heffler had a hard time finding garden furniture that suited him. Again, the opportunity light bulb went off, and he jumped into the patio furniture business.
Today, Hefler’s daughter and son-in-law, Bonnie and Paul de Merlis, operate the business. The two-story shop, still in its original location, has about 6,000 sq. ft. of retail showroom.
Most shops that depend on two vastly different, seasonal product lines simply change emphasis around the time of the vernal equinox. For example, warm season products, such as patio furniture, take a back seat to cool season products, such as wood stoves, when autumn arrives. Furniture may be allocated a smaller footprint in the showroom, but it’s still possible to find a set or two on the floor.
Not so at The Sign of The Skier. There’s the ski season, and there’s the patio furniture season, and rarely do the twain meet.
“When we do what we call our changeover,” Tataryn says, “we shut down for four days and pretty much strip the store and rebuild.”
A few items of patio furniture may remain tucked into a corner after the fall changeover, but that’s only because the shop is still awaiting some of its winter goods.
“We do get some nice weather through September and October,” Tataryn says. “But normally, by our Canadian Thanksgiving (the second Monday in October), we pack all the furniture up and concentrate on the season at hand.”
|A hardwood floor, white ceiling and ample lighting combine to set off the furniture.|
It’s All About Fashion
Tataryn, with a background in sportswear, came to The Sign of The Skier in October 2001 to work in the ski business. “We normally downsize our staff in the summer, and our hours are shorter,” she says. “But they asked me to stay on for the summer season. Within five or six years, I was assisting with the purchasing of the outdoor furniture. I just developed a real shining to the outdoor furniture side of the business.”
Tataryn’s training in fashion design serves her well throughout the year. “Design and style translates equally between furnishings and clothing,” she says. “It’s all about style and what people want.”
The merchandising décor at The Sign of The Skier reflects the predominant tastes of Canada’s largest city. The provincial capital of Ontario has a reputation as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities.
“The European influence is very appealing to our clientele,” Tataryn says. “We deal with a lot of contemporary, very modern lines.”
Leading lines include Gloster and Kingsley-Bate. The shop added furniture by Mamagreen a couple of seasons ago. “That has been very well received,” she says.
The same Toronto residents who buy sleek contemporary casual furniture for their homes in the city may lean to more mainstream North American furnishings for their summer homes in cottage country. “A lot of our clientele has vacation property, so we do some traditional furniture as well,” she says. “There’s a good balance of both.”
The manner in which The Sign of The Skier displays casual furniture indicates that the shop understands its market and knows how to give homeowners aspirational ideas.
Daylight pours through wide double-doors and street-side display windows, penetrating deep inside the shop. Tall ceilings – high enough for Treasure Garden AKZ cantilevered umbrellas – and light-colored walls make the entire space bright and airy.
A wooden staircase rising to the second level provides the only rustic hint that this space doubles for retailing skis, snowboards, poles and parkas during the cooler months.
Each arrangement of casual furniture is given ample space so that shoppers can fully appreciate the products’ lines and individual profiles. Resin wicker colors trend more toward gray and light rattan than the darker browns that predominate in many U.S. shops. Deep-seating cushions have neutral upholstery. Umbrella canopies and sling seating provide splashes of color.
|Green accents set the outdoor theme for this striking window display featuring the Mamagreen daybed.|
Dining displays often see a mixture of products from two or more vendors. For instance, she says, “a Gloster chair with a Kettler table. We’ve done Mamagreen and Gloster. We’ve done Kingsley-Bate and Gloster.
“In dining, we do a little more creative merchandising, but in deep seating we tend to stick by the catalog.”
The shop makes minimal use of accessories. The overall effect is more like a designer showroom than a typical outdoor furniture shop in the United States.
That hasn’t always been the case, Tataryn says.
“We used to heavily accessorize our groupings,” she explains, but that changed about four years ago. “Sometimes you lose sight of the beauty of the furniture, so we scaled back quite a bit in terms of dressing it up.
“We may do a couple of wine glasses on a dining group, whereas before we would do a full dinner setting.”
More manufacturers started offering contemporary styles about 10 years ago, Tataryn says. “Before, contemporary wasn’t as readily available. That’s sort of where trends went and what our clientele expressed a need for.”
Toronto tastes focus on design. “It’s more of a look than a material that people are after,” she says, “and I would say, for us, it’s contemporary.”
There’s plenty of variety to choose from in the contemporary realm, from resin wicker to teak to furniture that combines resin with wood or aluminum.
“We still do well with our teak category,” Tataryn says. “But I would say mixed materials is the strongest category.”
Shoppers with more traditional tastes sometimes prefer teak with a rustic finish. “We’ve found that rustic teak is going into more urban spaces,” she says, “not necessarily just the cottages.” She suspects the rise in popularity may be traceable to “the Restoration Hardware trend that really made that popular for urban use.”
Gloster and Kingsley-Bate are preferred vendors at The Sign of The Skier. “They’ve got Canadian distribution,” Tataryn explains, making it easy to “accommodate our special orders quickly and efficiently.”
Resin wicker customers who are more price-conscious can select from products by NorthCape.
The current disparity between the value of the Canadian and U.S. dollar has led the shop to alter its pricing strategy. A few years ago, when the currencies were more on par, the shop priced groups, or sets, on the floor. The Canadian dollar’s decline in value has pushed up retail prices for imported goods dramatically.
“What we may have had on the floor for C$5,000 or C$6,000 five years ago now is in the C$8,000 to C$9,000 range,” Tataryn says. Now, “We try to individually price the items as opposed to a set price, so that people know the value of each individual piece.”
The overall effect reduces sticker shock, she says. However, she thinks few sales are lost because of today’s higher prices.
“The Canadian marketplace knows the value of the dollar, and it’s all taken in stride. It doesn’t dissuade us from our U.S. suppliers over our Canadian suppliers. We really just look for the right product mix for our customers.
“We definitely take price into consideration,” she says, “but it’s not as much a deciding figure for us.”
|The Bay collection from Gloster is among the high-end offerings in the store.|
Some Metal Fatigue
The rise in popularity of resin wicker and contemporary design has seen an accompanying decline in interest in wrought-iron and cast-aluminum furniture. When returning customers want to add to their cast-aluminum sets, “We treat those on a special-order basis,” Tataryn says. “We haven’t stocked traditional cast aluminum in a while.”
The Sign of The Skier offers firepits by OW Lee, Hatteras and Pawley’s Island hammocks, and umbrellas by TUUCI and Galtech, in addition to Treasure Garden. The grill department features products by Big Green Egg and Weber.
The shop emphasizes its special-order capabilities as soon as the spring changeover transforms the store from ski gear to casual furniture. Furniture ordered in April usually can be expected to arrive for June delivery.
“Timing is definitely a factor in special orders,” Tataryn says. “Most people are happy, provided they can be assured they’ve got their product for Canada Day weekend.” (July 1).
One advantage to early special orders is potential savings on freight. When the shop can combine orders to one vendor, it may be able to offer shoppers “freight included” deals. “When it’s later in the season and we can’t combine orders as frequently, we would charge freight on top,” she says.
The shop’s location in North Toronto puts it closer to residential neighborhoods than the city’s sparkling downtown. That’s a plus, Tataryn says. It may also be a reason that most casual furniture sales go to single-family residences rather than to high-rise condo and apartment dwellers.
Toronto residential properties typically have smaller lots than an average suburban yard in the States. The massive scale associated with some brands literally doesn’t fit the Toronto lifestyle, as opposed to the cleaner lines and smaller footprint of many contemporary designs.
“I would say that a lot of our clientele is within the neighborhood we’re in,” Tataryn says. She describes it as affluent, with customers ranging in age from their 30s on up.
“A lot of our younger clientele’s parents shopped here,” she says. “They are familiar with the store because their parents came here, so we’ve got sort of a legacy of clientele.
“We’re lucky that way,” she says, “that we’ve developed a rapport with so many people, that we get so much repeat business.”
For any business, and especially the one at the corner of Yonge and Glengrove, that’s a good sign.
Store Name: The Sign of The Skier
Location: 2794 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario M4N 2J2
Owners: Bonnie and Paul de Merlis
Year Established: 1962
Web Site: www.thesignoftheskier.com
Phone: (416) 488-2118
Number of Stores: One
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales:
Av. Sq. Ft. of Building Space: 6,000 sq. ft.
Lines Carried: Brown Jordan, Gloster, The Hammock Source, Kettler, Kingsley-Bate, Mamagreen, Mobilier Jussaume, NorthCape, OW Lee, Patio Renaissance, Royal Teak, Sunvilla, Galtech, Treasure Garden, Tuuci
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