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Signs of success in abundance at The Sign of the Skier

Kristine Ellis, Staff Staff -- Casual Living, July 15, 2005

Call it an extreme makeover. Each year during the first week of April, The Sign of the Skier undergoes a transformation. Racks are removed, walls are repainted and even the fixtures are changed. It's all part of the changeover from ski shop to casual furniture store.

"It becomes a completely different space," said Paul de Merlis, who co-owns the Toronto-based business with his wife, Bonnie.

So much so that some startled customers will go back outside and check the signage. As de Merlis sees it, the two different businesses make the whole stronger.

"We go after the same customer winter and summer, so we are branding the same way 12 months of the year, just with different products," he said.

   Some customers, unaware of the seasonal changes at The Sign of the Skier, have exitied the store to check the signage, making sure they are in the right place. Co-ownert Paul de Merlis said his business goes after the same customer all year, despite the change in the product mix.


The Sign of the Skier has been both ski shop and outdoor furniture store for more than 20 years. Bonnie's father, Bill Helfer, started the ski shop in 1962 as a specialty business run out of the back room of his hardware store. When the current location became available in the early 1970s, he purchased the building and changed careers.

The de Merlises joined the business in 1980. At the time, Helfer dabbled a bit in one line of outdoor furniture but depended on other sports lines, such as tennis and sailboarding, for his primary counterseasonal revenue. As Paul started taking over the management of the business, he decided to drop the other sports lines and concentrate on casual furniture in the spring and summer months.

It proved to be a smart move. The Sign of the Skier's success at serving its two industries is underscored by its awards. In addition to winning numerous honors from the ski industry, including Best Specialty Ski Shop and Best Customer Service, Ski Retailer of the Year Awards; the casual furniture industry gave the retailer the 2004 Apollo Award for best international store. As it turns out, it was the last international Apollo Award.

Starting this year, the top international finalist will compete against the other single and multistore finalists rather than as a separate category.

"We came into the outdoor industry not knowing anything about it, so to be recognized with the Apollo Award was very rewarding," de Merlis said.

 The Sign of the Skier took home the casual industry's last Apollo Award in the international category in 2004.  


From newcomers to pros

The de Merlises built their outdoor furniture business on the successful model of the ski business. At its core is service by knowledgeable employees.

"With the ski business, the people who sell the product are the same people who buy the product," de Merlis said. "The same holds true in the summer."

Because they share similar demographics with their customers, he said, they know how discerning their customers are, what they are looking for and how they expect to be treated. The fact the core staff is there year-round is also a strength.

"Many of the staff have been here six to 17 years, so our customers know them and have grown comfortable with them," de Merlis said.

A few of the original staff left with the big move into casual furniture, deciding that it wasn't exciting enough for them. Even de Merlis admits to not being "really enthused" about the product itself, and the razing he got from some in the ski industry didn't help. However, knowing it was a good business decision, he and Bonnie both were driven to make it work and with that came an enjoyment of the industry.

Growth was in steps. At first, the de Merlises carried only Samsonite sling, strap and cushion lines. As both their confidence and the industry grew, so did The Sign of the Skier. Today it offers a full line of casual furniture products.

The store's brand is high-quality products at a fair price. It is also known for its variety of products, in ski products in particular but in furniture as well.

"I've always believed in giving customers as much choice as possible and tried to create a stepping stone of price points," de Merlis said. "Customers don't necessarily have to own the biggest house in the area to afford the furniture. Whatever they buy here is going to be of very good value and quality."

While his customers have money to spend, they tend to plan their spending.

"Over the last five or six years, we've seen impulse buying disappear in both industries," de Merlis said. "People are still spending, but they are coming in having planned ahead, and that's been a change."

The short summer season can be a challenge for the business and its customers alike. To avoid customer frustration with delivery times for special orders, de Merlis and his staff encourage customers to place their special orders in the fall so that the purchase comes with the first regular furniture delivery.

One common concern for Canadian retailers has improved in recent years — the exchange rate. Whereas five years ago de Merlis would have to add 50% to quotes made in U.S. dollars, thanks to the weak dollar he now needs to add only 30%, resulting in a bit of a drop in his prices. On the other hand, freight costs are up by 20%.

Local gas prices have also affected the business. For the first time ever, The Sign of the Skier is now charging for deliveries within metropolitan Toronto.

"Our competitors have charged for years," said de Merlis. "We held off, but it was just getting too expensive."

   The de Merlises slowly grew the casual business in their store, first carrying Samsonite sling, strap and cushion lines, and graduating to full lines from Brown Jordan International, Laneventure and Woodard, among others.


Urban insiders

As a Canadian retailer, de Merlis probably doesn't see as many sales reps as a retailer in the states would, but overall it hasn't been a problem. Those of his major suppliers who don't have reps in the area still do a good job with customer service.

What he would like more of from the manufacturers in general is consumer education about the differences between domestic products and imports.

"With a picture of a teak bench or cast aluminum chair at 10 feet away, it all looks the same," he said. "As retailers we have to show the consumer that there are differences. I think the manufacturers need to put their dollars to work to show why their product is better, what they do differently."

The biggest challenge for The Sign of the Skier is limited space. The store was originally half of its now 6,500 square feet, with a deli taking up the other half. In the early 1990s, the deli closed and The Sign of the Skier doubled in size, occupying both stories of the two-story building as well as the basement.

"It worked out great, but we still face the challenge of getting everything in the store and merchandising it well," de Merlis said. "We would like to be twice the size we are but there is no room to grow. We keep applying [to the city] to put a third floor on, but we keep getting turned down."

Moving isn't an option. The location is just too good. On the corner of a main thoroughfare, the store is in the heart of Toronto in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods.

The store makes the most of the space it does have. Furniture is displayed outside to draw interest, while inside sets are dressed with table settings and faux food. Teak, cast aluminum and wrought iron take up the main floor, with outdoor wicker, extruded aluminum and lighting upstairs.

Although some outdoor furniture remains on display outside into October, the casual furniture store disappears in mid-September when The Sign of the Skier undergoes another extreme makeover and turns back into a ski shop. Each transformation offers a chance to refresh the business.

"There are a lot of parallels but casual furniture is an entirely different industry," de Merlis said. "When we get to the end of the ski season, a lot of us relish the change."

 

 During the summer, The Sign of the Skier has 12 employees. Pictured around Bonnie and Paul de Merlis, center, are Norm Kiyonaga, sales; Denise Massie, buyer; Kevin Kato, sales, and Donna Tataryn, sales.  

 

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