Leon’s stresses humor, approachable nature

Soft-sell tone to adsRetailer of Distinction: Leon'sReason: AdvertisingMark Leon, president of furniture retailer Leon's, says he does not ask much of his Toronto-based advertising agency, Doner Schur Peppler.'I tell them I want people to notice our ads, to understand the meaning...

Soft-sell tone to ads

Retailer of Distinction: Leon’s

Reason: Advertising

Mark Leon, president of furniture retailer Leon’s, says he does not ask much of his Toronto-based advertising agency, Doner Schur Peppler.

‘I tell them I want people to notice our ads, to understand the meaning behind them, to talk about them, to laugh at them, and when somebody thinks about furniture, I want Leon’s to be at the top of their list,’ Leon says.

‘The manner in which we’ve approached it is to try to instill humor into our message, so that people know we are an approachable organization, right from myself, down to store managers and the guys in the warehouse,’ he says. ‘We’re all approachable and we want the consumer to feel that.’

One of Leon’s most memorable commercials shows an ordinary looking man falling asleep in his reclining chair to the song, ‘See you in September.’

As he nods off, his elbow nudges the record player, starting the record again. The commercial reminds viewers that under Leon’s payment plan, they will not have to pay for purchases until September.

‘There are a lot of people out there that are just banging the consumer over the head,’ Leon says. ‘They’ve got different sales every week. They’re always telling people to hurry and they’re screaming at them. We like to take a softer-sell approach.’

Q. In what order of importance do you place the following categories: merchandising, trade and supplier relations, product innovation, customer service, advertising, database marketing and staff relations?

A. As a retailer, it’s very difficult to put these things in any order of importance. I could have the greatest advertising in the world and get every single customer in North America to visit my store, but if when they come in, they have a salesman who abuses them, or they have to walk over a pile of garbage to get there, or the merchandise is overpriced, then that advertising means nothing.

If, on the other hand, I have bad advertising, but a customer comes into my store and they see a wonderful presentation, and they are greeted by a professional salesperson and they are thrilled with the service, then that means everything.

It’s like saying, ‘Is the heart, the brain, the liver, the kidney or your backbone more important? I don’t think you can be good at half of these things and poor at the other half and be successful. If you’re great at most, and good in the balance, you’ll be the leader by leaps and bounds. It’s all a question of balance.

Q. From where do you get your inspiration?

A. Other than the fact that we’re a very religious family and we get a lot of inspiration from God, most of us around here get our inspiration from the founders of the company.

We’ve been around for 90 years. My father and his brothers and sisters worked with their parents for many years. We have a great legacy that we want to continue. They built a foundation that’s sacred to us and we don’t treat it lightly.

Q. In your opinion, what have been the most startling changes in retail over the past couple of years?

A. One of the most startling changes as far as we’re concerned is the short-term thinking and the lack of commitment in retail. If somebody comes up with a good concept today, whether it’s a mall store or a separate standing store, before you know it, he’s got capital behind him from some government agency or junk bond trader, and he’s got 75 stores open in six months. And six months later, he is broke.

In the retail business especially, people are in a hurry to become giants. From our experience, unless the business is built on a foundation that’s solid, and unless you do long-term planning and thinking, it’s difficult to be successful.

Q. What trends can you see on the horizon that will most affect your business?

A. Trends aren’t something we give much thought to. We don’t profess to be people that can see into the future.

When people say that they see price clubs becoming a trend, I remind them that we opened our first in-store showroom back in 1973, where we put a tremendous amount of inventory out for instant pick-up and delivery.

People used to have to wait weeks for delivery. We priced our merchandise below the competition because we bought in quantity. We dealt with a variety of suppliers that enabled us to get just-in-time delivery, we improved our efficiencies. And that was 20 years ago.

Q. How do you stay on top of your concept?

A. We like to think we’re a pretty ‘flat’ organization. It doesn’t take too long for me to find out what’s happening in our stores. When a customer walks in and a salesperson approaches that customer, we can see how that person is feeling from what they’re saying, how they talk to us about their jobs. Customers open up to us and we can stay on top of it pretty good.

We also have cards that we provide our customers with every purchase. It has a questionnaire on it. It’s postage-paid, and sent to the attention of the president.

I get a pile of these cards every day on my desk. I go through every one of them. I initial every one. If there’s a problem, and it’s serious enough, I take care of it myself. If not, I pass it on to my manager and he’s instructed to take care of it.

It’s amazing the reaction you get from customers, when they actually get an answer from the president.

Q. Tell us how the recession has affected your business.

A. It’s more difficult to motivate the consumer to spend money. I would like to think things will change for the better, but if I were a betting man, I would have to say I don’t see anything on the horizon that is going to instill a tremendous sense of confidence.

How can people go from being concerned about losing their job, being concerned about losing their home, to being confident overnight? Any retailer that thinks they are going to be back into the boom time is kidding themselves. This could be the way it is for the next 10 years.

We would like to think our organization is fairly well-managed, fairly well-run and productive. Certainly, you have to re-evaluate your marketing expenditures, capital expenditures, inventory, and any expansion plans, but as far as the overall operation of our business, that doesn’t change too much.