BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Brick’s hard sell

D’ARCY JENISH January 11 1988
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Brick’s hard sell

D’ARCY JENISH January 11 1988

The Brick’s hard sell

BUSINESS

ECONOMY

In September, 1971, 22-year-old William Comrie scraped together $8,000 to open a furniture store in an Edmonton warehouse formerly used to store coffins. The venture was a spectacular success and Comrie, at 39, is now chairman and chief executive officer of one of the largest and fastest-growing furniture, appliance, television and stereo chains in Canada, the Edmonton-based Brick Warehouse Corp.

Although Comrie himself is a publicity-shy businessman who values privacy, he has relied on brash, noisy advertising to promote his Brick Warehouse outlets, which now number 28 in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Indeed, many Canadians associate The Brick name with its fastpaced high-decibel hardto-ignore television commercials featuring Michael Bell, a former actor and disc jockey who is now the company’s vice-president of public relations. “People tell me, T hate your commercials. Why are you always yelling and screaming on TV?’ ” said Bell, a familiar, grating presence to millions of viewers in all four provinces. “But as Bette Davis said, you’ve got to have guts to be hated.” People clearly paid attention to the ads, first in Edmonton and then elsewhere as the company expanded. And The Brick is still expanding, with plans under way to open half a dozen new outlets, primarily in Ontario and British Columbia, by spring. According to the latest company figures, sales in the financial year ended on Feb. 28, 1987, reached $296 million, up from $102 million four years earlier. (Toronto-based Leon’s Furniture Ltd., The Brick’s closest rival among furniture and appliance chains, posted sales of $194 million for 1986.) Toronto retail industry consultant Leonard Kubas said that Sears Canada Inc. remains the top merchandiser of furniture, appliances, stereos and

televisions, with estimated sales of $1.1 billion in 1987.

But the expanding Brick operation has some trouble spots. A chain of 30 furniture stores that Comrie controls in California lost money in each of the

past three years. And the company suffered another setback last October when it decided to withdraw an offer to sell $65 million worth of common shares following the stock market crash. Still, it was one measure of The Brick’s growth from its humble beginnings that it announced in November that three prominent Canadians had joined its board of directors: Jean Chrétien, a former Liberal cabinet minister, Darcy McKeough, a former Ontario treasurer, and oilman Robert Blair, chairman of Calgarybased Nova Corp.

After an expansionary binge during the past three years, The Brick now calls itself Canada’s largest volume retailer specializing in furniture, appliances,

televisions, video recorders and stereos. Some competitors and retail analysts are skeptical about the company’s claim, but at the same time, they speak admiringly of The Brick. Leon’s president Thomas Leon, for one, said

that The Brick is still “like a peanut” compared to such major chains as Sears and Eaton’s. But he conceded that the upstart company from Edmonton has stimulated sales throughout the entire industry with its brash promotions. “When they came to Toronto in 1984, our business went up 20 per cent,” said Leon.

Company founder Comrie entered the retail furniture business in 1968, three years before founding what became The Brick Warehouse operation. When he was 19, Comrie quit playing junior hockey in Moose Jaw, Sask., to take over the family furniture store in Edmonton after his father died. In 1971 he launched Bill Comrie’s Furniture Warehouse, the forerun-

ner of The Brick Warehouse. Comrie subsequently brought younger brothers John and Frederick into the business as partners. They are now running the company’s San Diego, Calif.-based Cousins Home Furnishings Inc. chain, and Brick officials say that they have stopped the losses there.

By early 1984 the company had grown to six stores, all located in Alberta. Since then it has expanded at a rapid rate. In May, 1984, The Brick acquired four Ontario stores owned by Stuart’s Furniture and Appliances for $11.6 million. At the end of 1987, said Brick president Paul Richards, the company owned 14 stores in Ontario and three in British Columbia, besides its nine in Alberta and two in Saskatchewan.

The most obvious reasons for The Brick’s success are its relentless use of promotional gimmicks and its attentiongrabbing advertising through television, radio and newspapers. And although The Brick has a 15-member promotions department to devise the plans, it is the irrepressible Bell who delivers them to the TV-viewing public. Since joining The Brick 12 years ago, Bell has appeared in more than 3,000 television commercials. He has wielded a spark-emitting sword and leapt through Styrofoam walls in his showman’s crusade to spread The Brick’s familiar message of slashed prices.

Despite The Brick’s expansion, Bell says that some of his most successful promotions were in his early years with the company in Edmonton. During heavily promoted “midnight madness sales,” The Brick Warehouse stayed closed all day, then opened its doors at midnight and stayed open for 24 hours. Said Bell: “There were hundreds of people lined up outside in just stinking weather.”

But besides its promotions and advertising, the company has developed a sound merchandising strategy. According to a prospectus prepared for its illfated share offering, The Brick buys huge volumes of merchandise from manufacturers and passes the resulting savings on to the customer. The company also offers extended warranties, in-house servicing and parts, and delivery anywhere for a flat rate of $20. Oilman and Brick director Blair added that the company’s sales staff is as well-trained as any in the Canadian retail industry. “I think we can all learn something from these guys,” he said. And as the company continues to pursue its aggressive expansion plans, an ever-growing number of Canadians can expect to be bombarded by Brick Warehouse promotions from the fasttalking hard-selling Michael Bell.

—D’ARCY JENISH with KERRY DIOTTE in Edmonton

KERRY DIOTTE