Cashing in on the condo boom

With the condo boom, many hip urbanites are living in small spaces. And some retailers are designing condo-friendly furnishings to make the most of those 600 square feet.

The urban dweller, textbook case: stylish, well-educated, single female, early 30s, no children, makes good money in the range of +$75,000, with plenty of disposable income.

Her priority: career and social life. Enjoys: dinner parties and entertaining friends at home. Owns: a European automobile and a condo in downtown Toronto. Enter a bevy of retailers that are eager to fill the urbanite’s condo with the latest in furniture and design that reflects a hip sense of individuality.

Certainly, this trend is nothing new: fashionable yet affordable Swedish design store Ikea has been around for decades. But now, with the condo market booming, especially in urban centres, retailers like Oni One – a Toronto-based furniture store that offers condo-ready furnishings – are set to expand across Canada and into the United States.

Other retailers, such as Winnipeg-based Palliser Furniture’s Gen X-targeted furniture store EQ3 and Club Monaco’s Caban are also eager to capture the imaginations of the urban dweller. Their strategies are comprised of location-based and streamlined retail environments, lifestyle-oriented events and hip advertising that convey the adventuresome, yet functional aspects of the retailers’ offerings.

While nation-wide condominium sales figures don’t exist, there are ‘starts’ – a term used to describe condos in development. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in 2002, there were close to 37,000 condo starts across Canada, compared to just over 27,000 in 1997.

One of the biggest demos for condo sales, according to Linda Mitchell, VP of marketing for Toronto-based Monarch Construction, is the 25- to 35-year-old group. She says people in this segment are waiting longer to get married and have children and thus have more disposable income, so they are more apt to move downtown – where they can spend their hard-earned coin on the finer things.

Eric Meerkamper, a partner with Toronto-based D-Code, a research and consultancy firm that specializes in marketing to people in their 20s and 30s, says retailers that simplify the process of home décor and ‘help people imagine different possibilities’ are on the right track. He also points out that the post-university demo may not be going out quite as much, and thus their home becomes a greater focal point for socialization. And they want to ‘brand their space’ with unique pieces.

While there’s been an influx of condos, the actual units or suites are getting smaller – as small as 375 square feet. This means that condo dwellers require more options in home furnishings.

Retail concept Oni One, which targets the urban, design-savvy consumer, was established in September of last year to address these concerns. Created by condo designers Elaine Ciccone and Anna Simone, the store offers multi-functional furnishings that are appropriate for small spaces.

‘In designing condos and lofts, and working with 450 square feet and up, it’s difficult to find furniture appropriate to the spaces,’ says Simone. ‘A lot of people say, ‘Oh my God, what can you do with 450 square feet?’ but if it’s furnished properly, there’s a lot you can do.’

Oni One’s advertising addresses this, as do its product offerings, which range in price from $30 to $3,500 and are multi-functional. Their ‘trough table’ for example, is an optional wine chiller and flower planter as well as a table.

The retailer has been promoted with advertising by Toronto-based creative house Concrete Design Communications in newspapers and magazines such as Toronto Life. Some ads feature a lineup of furniture on a spare, white background with the tagline, ‘My life is bigger than 624 square feet.’

Meanwhile, Oni One has also received extensive editorial coverage, due in part to press releases promoting new products. Simone says she and Ciccone were already well-recognized in the interior design community because of their involvement in designing condo projects internationally. Their design firm Cicconi Simone was founded in 1982.

Oni One also holds in-store events that reflect ‘a certain design sensibility that has more of an artistic flavour.’ They recently held a press event with luxury brand Louis Vuitton.

Similarly, Ikea has focused on communicating solutions for living in small spaces through its ‘Cubic Living’ positioning, which is conveyed in stores, online and in its catalogues. Keka Gupta, PR specialist for Ikea Canada, explains that some of the room settings in the store, and in the catalogue, show how consumers can make the most of their 600-square-foot living space.

For example, in the Ikea home setting, what is traditionally a walk-in closet can also work as a home office nook. Says Gupta, ‘Customers can walk out of the store with ideas they can use in their home.’

As well, on the Ikea Web site (www.ikea.ca), customers can pick sample room settings and get tips on home décor. Gupta says that while the store appeals to a broad range of consumers, one of its primary targets is the young urban dweller.

‘Ikea does a good job in terms of making a very easy and fun experience,’ says D-Code’s Meerkamper. ‘It’s colourful and fun and doesn’t commit you too much. You can try it out and if you don’t like it, you can change your look for not a huge investment.’

Meanwhile, urban lifestyle retailer Caban, the ‘store for modern living,’ first opened in October 2000 and has seven locations across Canada – in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. Owned by Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, Caban offers everything from stylish furniture to candles and place settings for the home.

Eric Berthold, VP of Toronto-based Caban, says the stores target urban men and women aged 25 to 45. Caban’s mandate, he adds, is ‘to provide a modern, edited collection for the home that reflects good design, quality and value.’

Berthold says Caban organizes weekly in-store events such as cooking demonstrations, designer appearances and CD launches of related interest to their customers.

For instance, to open Caban’s seventh location in Toronto’s Sherway Gardens on March 15, HGTV host Debbie Travis, known for her interior design shows The Painted House and Facelift, was on hand to answer customers’ design and renovation questions.

And last November, pop singer Chantal Kreviazuk launched her latest CD at Caban’s flagship downtown Toronto location. The singer performed in the store and signed autographs, and a portion of sales of her CD at the event went towards the organization War Child Canada.

Weekly in-store events and demonstrations are open to the public and are promoted through Caban’s Web site (www.caban.com). Marquee events, such as the Chantal Kreviazuk appearance, are promoted via newspaper advertising, ‘caban mail’ e-blasts and direct-mail invite.

Berthold says urban settings were specifically chosen for Caban stores – Queen Street West in Toronto, Granville Street in Vancouver, and St. Catherine Street in Montreal. He says the streamlined design sensibilities of the stores is meant to reflect an overall sensory experience.

The flagship Toronto location, by Toronto-based design team Burdifilek, was one of the winning projects in the 2001 Best of Canada Design Competition.

Meanwhile, the Montreal location, also by Burdifilek, received an award of merit in the 2001 International Store Design Competition. ‘There are impactful room settings and visual displays,’ says Berthold, who adds that the smells of room sprays and of food cooking in the demonstration kitchen further enhance the atmosphere.

D-Code’s Meerkamper says Caban has been effective in creating a ’boutique kind of feel.’

‘Its [print] advertising has a youthful, fun flair – that slightly retro, cartoon sort of feel. I think it tries to take away the intimidation factor. Now Caban obviously isn’t the cheapest of all the options out there, but for a certain group, they could go in and maybe find those one or two pieces that might be the highlight piece they can show off.’

He adds: ‘In general, people are looking for variety and experimentation, and great experiences as well. [Retailers] that can facilitate that are well-regarded.’