Passionate w/Good Taste*
*also buys right
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: © Macklin Photography. www.macklinphotography.com.
On May 1, one of the top-performing casual furniture stores in Manitoba dropped its longtime, well-established name and became something else.
R.I.P., Wicker World.
The family business, operated by its second-generation owner, now is known as Luxe Furniture.
This is Canada, so hockey naturally is involved.
The last straw for Phil Squarie, Jr., the incident that pushed him over the edge and convinced him that the name of his Winnipeg store had to change, came after a friendly game of hockey.
He and his teammates were in the dress room (better known in the U.S.A. as a locker room), downing beers, cooling off, and shooting the breeze.
A guy mentions that he and his wife are remodeling. They want a new sofa and other furniture. They plan to update their deck, too. Someone pipes up, “You should go see Phil.”
“What’s the name of your store?” asks the man who is destined to pay for a new sofa and more.
“Wicker World,” Squarie says.
“Oh, my wife hates wicker. We’ll never make it into that store.”
End of conversation.
“My heart just sank,” Squarie recalls.
The disappointment of that September evening in 2016 spurred Squarie to action. It compelled him to pull the trigger on a notion that had been taking shape for some time. Wicker World had to change, evolve, rebrand.
|L to R: Jenine Topping (sister) and Phil Squarie, Jr.|
A less confident businessperson might have shied away from such a decision. After all, isn’t it risky to discard a name and brand awareness created over more than two decades?
Yes, but Squarie – who grew up working in the business and purchased it from his father – is comfortable with a certain level of risk.
Years ago, he gambled on a new product from a long-time vendor of rattan and wicker products. That investment in five sets of white vinyl wicker paid off with a quick sell-through. “So the next time, we ordered more,” Squarie recalls. Today, Ratana remains one of Squarie’s leading vendors.
More recently, but before most specialty retailers became comfortable with contemporary furniture, Squarie brought the clean, crisp lines of modern furniture into his store on the prairie. He had a sense that there were customers in Winnipeg with lifestyle tastes similar to those of Vancouver and Toronto.
Squarie was right again, proving that a city stereotyped as traditional and conservative can have plenty of residents with an appetite for contemporary goods.
So when he knew in his gut that the Wicker World name no longer served the business well, he didn’t hesitate to make another leap of faith.
The transition took place just as Winnipeg moved into the height of Canada’s intense but brief casual furniture season.
“It was daunting,” Squarie says. “It was expensive. But I’m proud to say our name today.”
Not that he wasn’t proud to say Wicker World, but more words were required. “I always felt I had to give an explanation,” he says.
It would go something like this: “We don’t just sell wicker. We have aluminum, and we have teak and alternative materials. We also have indoor furniture.”
The need to explain what Wicker World was and wasn’t also influenced Squarie’s advertising.
“We had ads saying, ‘We don’t just do wicker. We do this, we do that.’ I was so sick of spending money telling people what we didn’t do.”
The next decision – deciding on a new name – was relatively easy. His daughter’s name, Luxton, had been the inspiration for a standalone grill store that he opened in spring 2016: Luxe Barbeque Company.
Luxe, as his wife told him, has a high-end connotation. Plus it sounds fresh and modern.
“Luxe Furniture Company is a name that says exactly what we do,” Squarie says. “We’re a furniture store. I love the sound of it. It gets the customer thinking high-end. It puts my daughter’s name on a badge, which I’m very proud of. She’s the love of my life.
“So, right there, I was done.”
Done, that is, with the decision-making. Months of work lay ahead, setting the stage for the May 1 debut of Luxe Furniture Company.
|The couch is from the 7822 collection by Lee Industries.|
Manic About Service
Luxe Furniture Company’s neighbors include a grain elevator, a welding supply business, an HVAC operation, and two car dealerships. There are no day spas, no home goods stores, no upscale restaurants nearby. (To be fair, Mama’s Noodle House, a well-reviewed pho restaurant, is directly across the street, and there’s a Tim Horton’s a couple of blocks away). In short, Luxe Furniture Company is not in a high-end, destination-shopping neighborhood.
Phil Squarie’s dad didn’t ignore the “location, location, location” mantra when he opened Wicker World in 1997. He placed it in an industrial and warehouse area because Wicker World needed warehouse space, not street-side showroom windows. The company at that time was a wholesaler, providing wicker and rattan baskets to the hospitality industry and retailers.
Four years later, in 2001, Wicker World began selling to the public from the same location, combining a fledgling retail business and warehouse in the same 24,000 sq. ft.
“Sometimes it’s kind of quiet here,” Squarie admits. “But when someone walks in, they drove here for a reason. Especially when they pull in here with their Mercedes, or their Ferrari. We take that into account. You just didn’t drive here for nothing. You’re looking for something.”
Squarie is assisted by his sister, Jenine Topping, who buys all the accessories for Luxe Furniture. They always place an attention grabbing set in a prominent spot just inside the front and back doors. (Returning customers know to come in the back door, which is closer to parking.) The first groups seen are usually among the most expensive outdoor furnishings in the store.
Sometimes, but not often, the prices on those showcase sets stop customers cold and they make a hasty exit. Customers who continue to explore see that goods become more affordable as one goes deeper into the showroom. Squarie trains staff to greet shoppers casually, give them time to get acquainted with the products, and never hover.
|Sunbrella swatches displayed in the Design Center.|
He also trains them to never ask, “Is this your first time at Luxe Furniture?” That avoids a negative response and the potential embarrassment of insulting a loyal customer.
The majority of those who enter the store are repeat customers. Squarie’s records show that more than 70% of sales are made to returning customers.
What brings them back? It’s not the prices, Squarie says, though he vows to be price competitive, item for item. “The reason our customers come back is the way we service them,” he explains.
That process begins with offering high-quality outdoor furnishings that perform well in Manitoba’s frigid winters and broiling summers. “We’ve consciously made a decision to have a product that we don’t have to service as much.”
When Squarie made the decision to open Winnipeg’s first store dedicated to the art of grilling, he made sure that same philosophy permeated Luxe Barbeque Company.
“If you treat your customer like crap, don’t listen to their concerns, and don’t answer their problems, you’re going to lose business,” he says. When his grill is the same price as a Home Depot model, he has to give the customer a reason to buy.
“We’re going to talk to them about that barbecue, educate them, make sure that’s the right barbecue. And then we’re going to service them. And that’s going to cost us money on a $499 barbecue. But, hopefully, someday they’re going to come back for that $1,499 barbecue. Or they’re going to tell their friends to come get that $499 barbecue.
“So,” Squarie says, “the question is, why wouldn’t you buy from us?”
Squarie’s philosophy is that the person who delivers products to a customer’s home is just as important as the employee who greets guests in the store and writes up the sale.
“Our drivers are fully involved,” he says. “We go a step above white glove. When they leave that house, the customer should have to do nothing.”
Service extends beyond setting up a new chat group or grill and removing all the packaging. The delivery crew is prepared to demonstrate how to operate that new cantilever umbrella or explain the workings of a fire pit.
“We get weekly emails on how good (the delivery crews) are,” Squarie says. He calls the delivery teams “the last ambassadors of our store” who “make and break our business just as much as the front end.”
Squarie can’t really say how he came to be so passionate about customer service. He admits that he accepts less than perfection when he’s the customer of other businesses.
“But when it comes to us, I get really upset if it’s not perfect,” he says. He strives to instill that same passion in his staff. “We want to make everyone who walks through the door feel important. I want to go home at night knowing I can rest easy that I have done everything I can.”
Inevitably he feels the sting of an occasional bad review via social media. So he reaches out to the aggrieved person and asks why. Sometimes he learns that the reviewer didn’t even make a purchase and left a sour comment “because the prices were too high.”
Squarie’s response: “Well, that doesn’t make us a bad business. If that makes you not want to shop here, I understand it. But no one’s ever going to say we under-serviced or under-performed or gave bad value.”
Anybody can open a casual furniture or barbecue store, Squarie says. Anybody can push goods out the door. But passion makes the difference.
“How we’re going to succeed is by having people love to come to our store. and talk about us and talk about the lifestyle that we’re creating for them,” he says. “That’s what I want. It’s just something inside me. I don’t know where it came from.”
|Napoleon barbecues on display.|
Preparing for Change
The opening of Luxe Barbeque Company in 2016 caused Squarie to change the product mix at his furniture store, and this year’s rebranding of that location led to further product adjustments.
The grill lineup at Wicker World for 2016 contracted. Squarie limited the selection to U.S.-built Weber products, Canadian-made Napoleon products, and Broil King grills made in North America. He carried no offshore-made products.
As a result, barbecue sales at Wicker World declined by almost 50% in 2016. Yet the store’s profits remained about the same. “We took out a low-profit-margin product and replaced those sales with furniture,” Squarie says, “and what we gained at the barbecue store was incredible.”
Luxe Barbecue Company, with 10,000 sq. ft. and products at every price point, did triple the grill business that Wicker World had enjoyed.
The barbecue store offers a smattering of casual furniture, but nothing that duplicates goods at Luxe Furniture. The stores are far enough apart that they don’t cannibalize one another.
Grills at the barbecue store, located on the opposite side of town and near the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, start at $199 for a Huntington model. Prices top out at $17,000 for a Hestan unit. Squarie added that line after seeing it at this year’s HPBExpo. “That barbecue is stunning,” he says of Hestan. “It’s crazy.”
Luxe Barbeque Company debuted the line in June and sold three Hestan products over the summer. One built-in grill head went for $6,000. A stand-alone grill sold for $14,000. And another grill was incorporated into a 12-ft. outdoor kitchen that rang up at $42,000.
Luxe Barbeque’s greatest volume, in terms of units, is in the $399 to $599 range, he says. Grills selling from $999 to $1,499 bring in the most revenue, followed by grills selling from $1,999 to $2,999.
Grilling hardware is complemented by a 60-ft. wall of rubs and sauces. “It brings people in like you wouldn’t believe,” Squarie says. “We sell a ton of it.”
There’s also a fuel room, stocked with pellets (Traeger brand) and about a dozen brands of charcoal.
|Saba by Plank & Hide.|
The decision to rebrand Wicker World came after Squarie and his team had made buying decisions for 2017. They had already placed more emphasis on higher-end casual furniture products, reserving just eight spots on the floor for products “chasing price points.” Next season that number will likely fall by half.
“It just didn’t sell,” Squarie says. “The higher-end stuff was selling, the unique stuff was selling, the stuff we were passionate about was selling.”
Squarie also revamped his interior furnishings lineup, which occupies the second level at Luxe Furniture Company. The last vestiges of Wicker World are gone; the store no longer carries natural wicker and rattan furniture. “It was a dead horse,” he says, “and very hard to get now. So we got rid of that whole component and shifted to more sectional sofas.”
The exterior of the store got a facelift. Trim colors were changed from maroon to black, giving the steel-clad structure a classier look to match the Art Deco-inspired logo.
New signage is backlit at night, creating “a very high-end look,” Squarie says. “People just can’t believe the transformation of the company. It’s great.”
Squarie’s marketing firm, which designed the Luxe Furniture Co. logo and advises the in-store staffers who handle social media, also created a tagline that sums up the new direction.
Luxe Furniture Co. – Home. Patio. Redefined.
People noticed, including Winnipeg’s top-flight interior designers who admitted to Squarie that “it was always a struggle to say to clients, ‘Go get your nice sofa at Wicker World.’”
Now, he says, they don’t hesitate to recommend Luxe Furniture Co. “That just warmed me inside,” he says.
Godfrey Leung, Ratana’s vice president of Sales, has indelible memories of his first encounter with Phil Squarie, Jr. The teenager helped his father at Wicker World and sported a Mohawk haircut.
“Our relationship is much more than a business relationship,” Leung says, “because I saw Phil grow up.”
Initially, Ratana provided the wicker baskets that Wicker World resold to the hospitality industry and other shops. The Winnipeg business then added wicker and rattan furniture when Ratana expanded with those products.
Then Wicker World took a chance when Ratana offered its first vinyl wicker furniture, which was quite elementary by today’s standards. Squarie recalls it consisted of PVC wrapped on a rattan frame.
“Over the years, both of us grew together,” Leung says.
“This guy works very hard. He improves himself every day. I’m so proud,” he says. “I treat him like my son.”
Then Leung offers what may be the ultimate compliment for a casual furniture retailer.
“He’s passionate about patio furniture. He has good taste, and he always buys right.”
Store Name: Luxe Furniture / Luxe BBQ
Owner: Phil Squarie, Jr.
Year Established: LFC, Formerly Wicker World 2001
Number of Stores: 2
Number of Employees:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: COPY
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 4%