They feel strongly about their landmarks in Wetaskiwin, Alberta — French’s knew that as it merged two Main Street institutions
By Cathleen McCarthy
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 edition of INSTORE.
French’s Jewellery has been a landmark in Wetaskiwin since the town itself blossomed at the turn of the last century, along the railway in Alberta. By 2013, after more than a century in the same space, the store had long outgrown its 800 square feet and was sorely in need of expansion and facelift. But relocating a store that’s been a town mainstay since 1912? That’s a tricky maneuver.
Updating a landmarkAfter serving in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, H.R. French returned to his hometown and went to work for a local watchmaker, eventually buying the store in 1921 and renaming it French’s Jewellery. Wetaskiwin was a railway and agricultural town then, with dirt streets where horse races were held and impromptu brass-band parades welcomed every ball game and event.
Even today, trains roll through town on the Alberta corridor, just 300 feet from the store, and many customers still make their living from farming.
Many of French’s core customers grew up with the store, as did their parents and grandparents. When the owners decided to move across the street, taking over a stationery store locals had also grown up with, they had to proceed carefully. Facing the overhaul of two nostalgic landmarks — the new location, boarded up for years, had been a well-known hotel in the Gilded Age before a fire shut it down — townsfolk were edgy. Sensing this, manager Laurelle Giesbrecht posted a sign in front of the store during construction: “Keep calm. We’re not moving far.”
Giesbrecht understood their attachment. Both the jewelry and stationery stores were part of her childhood, too. When she was in 10th grade, her parents, Harold and Deanna Anderson, bought French’s. “This store would have closed in 1988 if it weren’t for my parents,” she says. “They had a vision.”
When the store reopened in late 2013, French’s sales floor had doubled and the crucial behind-the-scenes area — offices, repairs, shipping and receiving — is six times bigger. Among other things, the $85,000 expansion meant moving a neon sign with a clock that had been hanging in front of the store since 1945, the lifetime of most of its customers.
melding the old with the newAt the grand opening, the mood was buoyant. French’s familiar neon clock-sign no longer hung at the entrance, but customers found it refurbished and installed within, along with the towering oak cases built in the early 1900s.
“Those antique cases had been there ever since,” Giesbrecht says. “That’s really what I built the vision for the new store around — our history and our old cases.” Familiar features were seamlessly integrated with much-needed, sleekly modern, LED-lit cases of glass and chrome. The original pressed-tin ceiling from the old hotel, hidden since the 1960s, was revealed and restored to its former glory. Giesbrecht chose a palette of gold, gray and beige to reflect the store and hotel’s Victorian origins, choosing pendant lights with a vintage feel and marble-like tile.
Sculptural, architectural pendant lights are sleek and minimal but still add interest and warmth. They were suspended on cables after the showcase placement was planned.
Giesbrecht had already altered the merchandise mix itself to more closely reflect the store’s heyday. “Jewelry stores went through an era where they carried a lot of giftware and ours had started looking more like a gift store,” she says. “We just didn’t have the real estate, given how much revenue that was generating.”
“Our showcases are dedicated to jewelry, not accessories, but the back wall with LED lighting was inspired by Michael Kors,” she says. “Everything is backlit. I get my direction from being in stores. I love the retail experience, whether it’s shopping or being behind the counter.”
The hotel’s rounded windows were maintained on top, closed off at the bottom for displays — a keystone of French’s business and Giesbrecht’s forte. “Visual merchandising is in my blood,” she says. “I stay late at the store to work on the windows and redo our displays. It’s fun.”
Lure kids, win customersOne of the innovative approaches Giesbrecht takes is to appeal to customers through their children. She makes sure goodies are available for kids at all times and has staff hand out nickels for a gumball machine in the back of the store. “The effort it takes to wipe a few fingerprints off cases is well worth it,” she says. “If you treat a kid well, who knows what that will translate into when they become older and want a special purchase?”
P H O T O G A L L E R Y
FIVE COOL THINGS ABOUT
➤ 1. Gumball marketing: Sales associates at French’s give out nickels to children to use in the vintage gumball machine at the back of the store. In Wetaskiwin, kids grow up to be paying clients, more often than not, Giesbrecht says: “Besides, they can be a very persuasive when it comes to getting their parents to visit a store.”
➤ 2. Join ’em: Every Christmas, French’s sends flowers or a fruit basket to their competition, the other jeweler in town. “Consumers need options and variety,” says Giesbrecht. “If I don’t have what a customer is looking for, I prefer to see the sale (and dollars) stay in my community. I never hesitate to pick up the phone to ask them if they have an item, and they do the same for us.”
➤ 3. Phone rehab: French’s recently added smartphone repair to its list of in-store services. These services have been well received, utilizing the same tools used for watch repairs.
➤ 4. Display gene: Going through old photos when her grandfather passed away, Laurelle discovered a shot of a Campbell’s Soup display in a nearby grocer’s window. The award-winning display had been created by her grandfather in 1946. Seems a talent for window display runs in the family.
➤ 5. Rural giving: Charitable endeavors at this century-old retailer have always supported the town’s lifeblood: railway and agriculture. Today, French’s supports hockey and golf tournaments, a food bank, Habitat for Humanity, and is the primary sponsor of the Champagne & Diamonds event to raise money for cancer patients. True to their roots, however, they still host the annual Barn Dance & Pie Auction to raise money for the local hospital. Owner Deanna Anderson bakes 10-inch tall chiffon cakes with jewels hidden inside. They go for big prices. “People don’t just cut into the cake,” her daughter says. “They put it in the middle of the table and slaughter it to find the jewelry.”
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