GRENFELL, Saskatchewan – The world has gotten smaller (figuratively, at least) making its simpler for decorative accessories from far off place to find their way to the Canadian market. But few retailers and consumers are aware they can procure some truly unique statement pieces, such as a wildly appearling prehistoric looking sink, from a little company based here called The Village Merchant.
The firm was discovered at the recently concluded 2016 edition of the Canadian Furniture Show (CFS), offering an impressive array of bathroom sinks that somehow managed to evoke images of the Flintstones and luscious, luxurious outdoor washrooms (the kind you’d find at a high-end resort in some sunny locale). With just one glance at the well-curated booth, it was clear The Village Merchant had something special to offer.
“We’ve been at this for slightly over two years,” says Jamie Gorchynski, the co-owner of the recently established resource. “We had a relative who owned a small shop in B.C. who brought in products from Bali, Indonesia and we always liked her stuff. We went over with her on a holiday and what ended up being her last buying trip became our first.”
Unlike many companies in the home furnishings trade, this one came to life on what was almost a whim. Gorchynski and his wife, Lisa, simply decided the Canadian market might respond well to rustic furniture, one-of-a-kind stone sinks, hand blow glass décor, teak products and other Indonesian-made home products.
The Gorchynski’s instincts weren’t wrong and the move to establish the company came at a time when people were opening their hearts and minds to unique, quality wood products produced by skilled artisans. Although some design gurus are noting a shift towards more glossy and glamorous finishes, large swaths of the Canadian market are still very interested in buying and selling rustic pieces. If those pieces happen to be exotic and tell a story, that would be all the better.
“[When we got back with some products] we did some local retail tradeshows and got a really good response,” he says. “We just tested the market with the retail tradeshows and quickly sold the stock that we had bought. They were just small pieces, such as carvings, because we hadn’t really seen the full picture of what was available.”
Once the Gorchynski’s took their show on the road, so to speak, they found out that there was, indeed, a huge market for their imports.
“We did Agribition [a livestock and goods tradeshow] in Saskatchewan and it’s such a varied market and there’s no specific target. We’re more rural out here, but we found that there was interest from all corners. We also did the Manitoba Winter Fair and the Winnipeg Cottage Country Show and the Ultimate Women’s Show in Winnipeg. We just got swamped and mauled there. We realized we’d have to bring over a container [of product],” he recalls.
While the couple could have opened their own shop and marketed directly to end consumers, they saw more opportunity in providing goods to a wide variety of retailers.
“After the retail shows, we were asked where people could buy our stuff,” he says. “People import and retail out of their own shops, but that doesn’t give the wider marketplace access. We saw that there was a market here and we developed a business plan. Our market is small and our foot traffic is light, so we knew wholesale was the way to go.”
After testing the market with the smaller shows, the Gorchynski’s decided to up the ante by setting up at the grander Alberta Gift Show. That show – one dominated by significantly larger exhibitors – prompted the couple to kick off their wholesale operation.
“We started out with small booth because we were going out on a limb,” he says. “We had a 200 square foot booth there and we loaded our own truck and trailer. Lisa said we were way out of our league. We were a little mom and pop shop rolling through the doors. I’m also a carpenter, so I built our wood booth. We were next to a large Toronto-based company and we just felt like a little dimple, but before we even finished setting up, we had people coming over to us and giving us positive feedback. People said our stuff was cool and we were going to do well. It was a crapshoot for us, but we ended up with product in 50 or 60 stores across western Canada and the Northwest Territories. We had to deliver most of our own product because it’s so delicate.”
The couple’s success at the gift show was monumental. After over-selling their inventory and ordering yet another container of product, the pair decided they needed a larger space to store their goods. They are now in the midst of renovating a 4,600 square foot space in Grenfell which was expected to be completed last month.
Although the unique start-up has gotten off to a good start, there are challenges involved in importing good quality products from so far away. To mitigate the difficulties, Gorchynski relies on good relationships with his suppliers.
“We make sure we get enough good quality products to fill orders,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but we have really good suppliers. We don’t want to lose our grip on quality.”
As for other challenges, the couple is also learning to navigate an industry that’s been, up until this point, relatively known to them.
“It’s a leap and a steep learning curve,” says Gorchynski, who has worked as a carpenter and teacher throughout his woodworking career. “But I’m such a wood guy. On our first trip, I was looking at the teak and just fell in love with the material and I had all kinds of ideas. [This business] is somewhat an extension of my passion.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Gorchynski’s business is its reliance on Indonesian suppliers (the Indonesian government actually sponsored the Merchant’s booth at CFS). Importing products from international suppliers isn’t just cost-effective (although currency conversions can induce headaches), it’s exciting. It gives the importer a chance to get to know another culture and share its craftsmanship with another country.
“You have to develop a trust-based relationship,” he explains. “We need to be back over there in November and we’ll be there for about two months. You want to see the orders filled and make sure everyone is paid. You want to make sure all the paperwork is looked after and you want to see the container off. Mistakes can be expensive and out of your control.”
He also says you have to adjust to different cultural expectations and roll with the punches.
“Indonesia is a unique place and business practices can depend on the supplier’s religious background,” Gorchynski points out. “Business with some suppliers is based on trust and feeling each other out. It’s an interesting place and it’s so safe. I feel safe walking down the darkest alley. It’s a relaxed and calm and happy setting. I’ve never felt insecure or like anyone was out to get me, but you have to be careful and be very specific about what you order. Bartering is typical and you have to learn how to walk away, but they’re honest and nice people to do business with.”
The Village Mercant is currently selling to independent retailers in western Canada and wants to expand into the rest of the country as well as into some of the larger regional and national retailers.
“We expected a bigger number of buyers at CFS, but it was worth it for us,” he says. “We generated orders and contacts. We have one or two [retailers] in Toronto now, but most of our orders were for out west. Eastern Canada will develop over time, but we don’t want to rush and not be able to supply orders. We’ve grown beyond our expectations.”