The Brick Celebrates Milestone 50th Anniversary

By Ashley Newport

Starting a business is hard, running a business is harder and running a business that stands the test of time over a single decade — let alone five of them — is harder still.

Canada has watched too many veteran brick-and-mortar retailers shutter underperforming locations (and in some cases, shut down entirely) in the face of recessions, shifts in consumer behaviour and the rise of e-commerce. Among them have been some names familiar to insiders from this country’s furniture, mattress and major appliance industry such as Sears, Pascal’s Furniture, and Today’s Colonial, among others.

The Brick is one of the few retailers in this country — regardless of its product category — to celebrate its 50th anniversary. And is one of the few to achieve the milestone with only a single change in ownership.

In what has become a familiar story to most industry insiders, The Brick was founded by William H. Comrie in 1971 who gave up what was a promising career as a professional hockey player to take over the family furniture store after his father’s sudden death. He sold that business, gifting the proceeds to his mother, and shortly thereafter opened a single furniture store in downtown Edmonton after securing a loan for what was then the princely sum of $8,000.

Comrie held both leadership and ownership positions in The Brick for the next 40-plus years, until it was acquired by its principal Canadian rival — the Toronto-based Leon’s Furniture — for $700 million in May 2013.

Today, The Brick is a subsidiary of the publicly held Leon’s Furniture Limited and operates a total of 209 stores from coast-to-coast, including some 65 franchise locations (as this issue went to press it opened its first store in St. John’s, Newfoundland, making it a truly coast-to-coast full-line furniture banner with a brick-and-mortar stores in all ten provinces).

In its most recent Retail 100 report, the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity (CSCA) at Ryerson University ranked The Brick, which remains headquartered in the city where it was founded, as the country’s 47th largest retailer with sales in 2019 of just over $1.34 billion. It is one of only five furniture merchants on the list — the others being its sister banner Leon’s Furniture, IKEA Canada, Sleep Country and Ashley HomeStores.

And as far as Dave Freeman is concerned, the brand’s growth can be attributed to its success of pairing a well-rounded selection of goods with compelling financing options and generous warranties, making it popular amongst shoppers looking to furnish everything from spacious family homes to cozy condos. Freeman is a good position to know, he’s served as president of The Brick since November 2016 but more than that, he’s one of the retailer’s longer serving team members have joined the company in 1980.

“Being a ‘high impact promoter’ is still a very important part of how we go to market,” Freeman told Home Goods Online, adding the brand — which continues to offer ‘no money down’ and deferred payment plans to customers — is proud of its reputation. “For 50 years and counting, our valued customers have come to expect great value, with creative promotions and the flexibility to pay based on their needs and preferences. The concept has evolved in that we offer more options in terms of product and financing solutions.”

When William Comrie founded what has since become Canada’s largest full-line furniture retailer back in 1971, it started out as the single unit Comrie’s Furniture Warehouse in downtown Edmonton. Shortly thereafter, the store was given the name by which it is known today — The Brick.

Keeping Up with Trends and Changes
While The Brick has grappled change over the years, it hasn’t let challenges deter it from embracing change and evolving to meet the needs of consumers.

“We’re really proud of the 50 years and extremely grateful to Canadians for choosing us. I think we’ve thrived because we’ve had this loyal group of customers. We’ve retained our best customers over time and gathered new ones. We certainly don’t take that for granted. You take a look around and see the sort of iconic Canadian companies that disappeared. We’ve always done a good job of listening to our customers,” Freeman says.

Freeman believes The Brick is very agile for such a large company and therefore able to pivot to meet the needs of a changing market.

“We just look for trends and we look at results,” he explains, adding, “We get feedback from our customers and team members and if there are gaps, we respond with a real sense of urgency. We’ve got a nationwide service network and we’ve got a great installation group. We own an insurance company and we’ve got a great warranty company.”

Freeman also says The Brick is mindful when it comes to sourcing product to ensure customers enjoy quality goods for reasonable prices. “We buy independently, we go direct to the manufacturers and buy from them. You have a lot of influence over quality. We’ve done a great job to have this superior quality at a great price.”

But listening to customers is the most important thing. “We spend a great deal of time listening to what our customers say to us, and what they have told us is that they want great value without compromising on quality, style and service,” Freeman says. “We sell sofas that can fit any budget from $399 to $6,999 and at each price point, we ensure its great quality and packed with features and functions that benefit their lives.”

Critically important at this point in the 21st century, Freeman points out The Brick has wholeheartedly embraced e-commerce, pointing out the retailer’s original web site went online in the late 1990s — long before most other furniture retailers in this country — and has spent two decades providing its customers with more and better opportunities to purchase furniture online.

“Over the past few years, in particular, we have learned that our customers value the ability to shop online and as such, we have put an increased emphasis on the development of our e-commerce platform.”

The unique thing about The Brick, he suggests, is its ability to evolve and grow while never straying far from its original goals and marketing position. “Our market position hasn’t needed to change very much over the years. We’ve always appealed to everyone from the young person getting their first place, to young couples or families buying their first home, to empty nesters. We work hard to carry an assortment of product that appeals to Canadians at all stages of life, as we always have,” Freeman says.

But while the company hasn’t needed to tweak its image or customer-service model too much, it has had to ensure its assortment offers consumers the styles — and price points — they’re looking for. “Our product lineup has changed a great deal to become more diverse. Style has always been important, however, developing innovative and multi-functional products has become critical to meet the evolving needs of our customers,” he says, adding The Brick has adapted what is showcases on its retail floors to changing housing and social trends.

Now, the brand offers pieces suitable for smaller homes and even caters to customers who work exclusively from home.

Keeping Things Exciting
While The Brick has thrived by offering consumers a wide range of furniture, mattresses, appliances and consumer electronics with an equally wide range of financing options, it has also embraced high-impact marketing campaigns fronted by well-known celebrities — including such beloved figures as Canadian figure skater and Olympic gold medallist Tessa Virtue and the American television actor Sofia Vergara, star of Modern Family.

“We have a long history of partnering with celebrities who share our vision for fashion and quality,” Freeman says, pointing out The Brick continues to work with other high-profile personalities such as supermodel/entrepreneur Cindy Crawford; celebrity designers and HGTV television personalities the Scott Brothers and Kortney Wilson, star of Making it Home, among others.

Freeman says working with such well-known faces adds a burst of energy to the company’s image and they help remind consumers The Brick remains fashion-forward and adept at following trends. “These partners add energy, and more importantly, credibility to the products we sell by being experts in interior design and by having a hands-on approach to design and quality. They want to make sure whatever we sell to customers is something they would be proud to have in their own homes,” he says.

“For example, Tessa [Virtue] is a wonderful ambassador for our sleep category who shares our vision for the health and wellbeing of our customers. She is no stranger to a high-performance lifestyle and knows how critical sleep is for achieving your goals and being your best possible self. She is a gold medal Olympian, and self-care, including a good night’s sleep, is a big part of that,” he adds.

The Brick’s first celebrity spokesperson was voice actor Michael Bell (right), sometime in the late 1970s. In addition to starring in the retailer’s television and radio commercials, he served as the company’s vice-president of public relations for 15 years before leaving in 1989.

Keeping the Environment and Community in Mind
When a company grows as large as The Brick, people expect it to acknowledge social and environmental challenges and to give back where able — something Freeman says the retailer has never shied away from. “We’re working hard to understand our carbon footprint and what is sent to landfill and how we can avoid that,” Freeman says.

Since first implemented in 2007, the company’s Project Green has been the catalyst for its environmental initiatives which is spearheaded by a robust recycling program operated in partnership with Waste Management. The company believes its recycling efforts in 2020 alone saved 42,477 trees from being cut down, over 23 million gallons of water from being used and conserved over 14 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

And for the past four years, The Brick has been an active supporter of Tree Canada and its team members have planted more than 850 trees across the country so far.

Supporting other community initiatives is also important.

“We’ve always been a generous organization, from my viewpoint. We do have a good focus on giving back to the communities where we work, live and play,” Freeman says.

For example, it has raised over $9.6 million for the Canadian branch of the Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) over the past seven years and was recognized as its Corporate Partner of the Year in 2020. As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the retailer has set a fundraising goal of $2.25 million for 2021.

It has also been an active support of Wounded Warriors Canada (which supports veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families) and recently furnished 20 housing units built for homeless veterans at Edmonton’s new ATCO Veterans Village, a housing initiative from the Homes for Heroes Foundation.

“We’ve done some tremendous work with CMN over the last five or six years and that’s really a testament to our customers and their sentiments around kids and we’re passionate about it. We also do some great work with Wounded Warriors. Those are all things we’re really proud of,” Freeman says.

Surviving Covid-19
When you’ve been around for half a century, you’ll see the ups and downs in the economy and maybe — if you’re unlucky — a global pandemic. While COVID-19 has been incredibly difficult for most Canadians and Canadian businesses, The Brick — much like most other furniture retailers — has managed to continue to appeal to lockdown-weary consumers itching to redecorate their abodes amid rolling stay-at-home orders.

The brand, which opened its new corporate flagship store in its home city’s West Edmonton Mall in late summer 2019, has managed to expand its brick-and-mortar presence across the country over the past 18 months, despite the restrictions imposed by the ongoing health crisis.

“We are fortunate to have been very busy with brick-and-mortar expansion over the past 18 months,” Freeman says, adding the brand has enjoyed significant expansion in Atlantic Canada, a region of the country where it didn’t have a strong presence during its early years.

“This past spring, we opened a state-of-the-art distribution centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to support our new group of stores. We previously announced new stores in Fredericton and St John, New Brunswick, and St John’s, Newfoundland in addition to a relocated store in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. With these new store openings, The Brick is now truly coast-to-coast, serving Canadians in every province,” he noted.

While the pandemic has been incredibly challenging, Freeman has been inspired by how well his team has adapted to the rapidly changing situation.

“If there can be a ‘best’ from all of this, I would say it was the response by our team. Watching how they responded and adapted to the ever-changing restrictions, closures and other hurdles was remarkable. I am so incredibly proud of the 5,000-plus team members I work with at The Brick,” he enthused to HGO.

“Our systems and processes were tested. We found out our fundamentals were sound and that we could pivot quickly. Transitioning to basically a full e-commerce company and back wasn’t easy but it was seamless.”

Despite the ongoing challenges the pandemic is presenting — and could continue to present for brick-and-mortar retailers — Freeman says The Brick still has room to grow.

“We believe there is room for more stores through infilling in major markets, looking for new opportunities in rural areas across the country and to continue to expand our very valuable franchise dealer network. Plus, with our biggest store being our web site — thebrick.com — the possibilities really are endless as retail and customer expectations and demands continue to evolve,” he says.

Plans for the Future
While COVID-19 has proven, once again, no one can ever predict the future, Freeman says the years ahead look bright for the company, adding the brand plans to open more brick-and-mortar locations while continuing to enhance its e-commerce platform.

“Our e-commerce division was growing at an incredible rate prior to the pandemic, but it grew exponentially over the last 12 months. As Canadians become more comfortable shopping online, we continue to expand our online product selection, adding more options than you would see in store for them to choose from,” he enthuses, continuing, “As we look to the future, we see leveraging the relationships we have today with our suppliers and building on new ones to develop a robust marketplace offering. Our brick-and-mortar locations provide a place to touch, feel and experience our products first-hand, so an online marketplace with even more product categories for your home seems to be the next natural opportunity for incremental sales.”

Freeman says the pandemic made it clear Canadians are more than happy to purchase goods they would traditionally want to touch and feel online, such as mattresses, furniture, major appliances and other big ticket home goods. But he also points out those internet-savvy costumers are ultimately looking for simplicity.

That said, Freeman doesn’t think people who became accustomed to shopping online will abandon e-commerce to shop exclusively in store once the crisis is behind us. “Customers have certainly become very comfortable shopping for big-ticket items online this past year, and what they’ve told us is that they want simplicity. Our site was producing great results for us, but the last 18 months saw tremendous growth across all channels, paid and unpaid,” he says.

“We organically saw more customers coming to our web site and tremendous growth in users that were searching for the products we sell. As we re-opened stores, we have seen that upward trendline level out, but it hasn’t come down anywhere close pre-pandemic levels and we don’t think it ever will,” he added.

Freeman believes customers will continue to shop both online and in-person, especially since many want to see that sofa or appliance in person before clicking the “add to cart” button on the web site. “We do see cross-shopping between our online and physical stores continuing to grow. Many customers narrow down their search online and come to make the final purchase online and others do the opposite,” he says.

Going forward, Freeman says The Brick plans to make online shopping even easier. “Customers will soon be able to create their wish list online and head into the store to see it with the help of one of our associates or do the opposite and have one of our associates add the products they like to an online cart for them to further review from home and finish the sale there. The key is to make things really simple and really convenient wherever you can. Give your customers options and let them make the purchase how they prefer through a holistic, omnichannel shopping experience.”

As for what else The Brick plans to do, Freeman says the company is focused both on innovation and staying true to its brick-and-mortar roots — even at a time when e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Wayfair are creating stiff competition for more traditional retailers.

“Videos to demonstrate products and explain features and benefits, live chat and text to answer more detailed questions and provide service on the spot, A/R and V/R, room planners and product configurators – these are all things you will see more and more of on e-commerce sites. But despite the introduction of new innovations, brick and mortar will always be relevant in our industry,” he maintains.

“Many online-only players struggle with delivery and reverse logistics; they look for locations to use as drop off spots for customers and return depots. Today we have all that infrastructure conveniently located in over 200 locations from coast to coast, predominantly with our own team ensuring an excellent customer experience. From a service offering perspective, the customer has more choices on how to interact with us than an online-only retailer ever will.”

As for what new products customers can expect to see over the years, Freeman says consumers can continue to expect the offerings they’ve come to rely on. “We will grow into other segments through an online marketplace that is direct to consumer.”

“The outlook is very bright for The Brick and our business model going forward. At The Brick, our mission is Saving you More, but that isn’t just saving you more money; it’s also about saving you time, effort, energy and reducing stress and pain points on your interaction with our company,” Freeman believes, adding, “We could not have achieved this 50th Anniversary milestone without the continued support of our customers, our committed team members, and partners. As we move forward into the next 50 years, we will continue to evolve to ensure we’re delivering the best possible experience — whatever the platform.”

Ashley Newport is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who writes primarily for trade and business publications. Her specialties include food, hospitality and emerging social/business trends.

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