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big idea

The home improvement centre will not only house stores but also meeting rooms, a 200-seat auditorium for product launches, cafés, and 1,500 parking spots.Improve Canada

When Oleg Chekhter was renovating his two-storey Toronto penthouse about six years ago, he spent almost as many hours driving from store to store searching for cabinets, countertops, and lighting as he did doing the actual construction.

"It took me a long time to find the right products, to find the right supplier – it's a headache," says Mr. Chekhter, who was doing a complete overhaul of his space, including remodelling the kitchen and bathrooms. Why, thought Mr. Chekhter, should it be so laborious (not to mention costly) just to gather the materials needed to update his home? After all, most people doing their own renovations are working on their limited leisure-time hours.

"And sometimes you don't know what's available on the market right now," he added. All of the hassles gave Mr. Chekhter, who arrived in Canada from the Ukraine in 1992, the idea to launch a new type of company in Toronto. Set to open in Vaughan in 2013, Improve will be a kind of home renovation mall, with room for 401 businesses in 36 categories, from blinds to flooring to kitchen sinks – all under one roof.

Mr. Chekhter describes it as "kind of like [Toronto's]Yorkdale [Mall]but in construction." The facility, a former aluminum factory, will be completely remodelled, and will not only house stores but also meeting rooms, a 200-seat auditorium for product launches, cafés, and 1,500 parking spots.

Mr. Chekhter, one of three partners in Improve, says this isn't a unique idea – there are similar shopping centres in Europe and Asia – but he feels the time is right to launch it in the Greater Toronto Area.

In 2010, Canadians spent $22.8-billion on home renovations, according to a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation report.

"It's a huge market," Mr. Chekhter agrees.

He has devoted himself to the project for five years, and says the key to the process was finding the proper location (close to Highway 400 and the 407), and an existing building. Since the sales offices have opened, 70 units have been sold, for between $300,000 and $330,000 each. Units come with a corresponding online showroom on the Improve website, which will launch when the mall opens.

Mr. Chekhter is focused on ensuring that Improve doesn't become a big box-type mega-construction store. Instead, he wants to see a variety of smaller showrooms featuring building supplies and furnishings at a range of prices, along with custom-built items, contractors and designers. He expects customers to be both individual homeowners planning to do their own work, as well as companies or consultants.

Sasa Krcmar, executive director of Krcmar Surveyors Ltd., whose company conducted the survey work, says he was drawn to the project because Improve is a unique business.

The fact that the showrooms will exist together, instead of being located throughout the city, will encourage healthy rivalry, he says. "Where else can you see multiple suppliers of the same product and do your comparisons?"

Others are eagerly anticipating the opening, hoping it will save them time and money.

Lisa Rogers, a Toronto consultant who designs both private homes and commercial spaces, says she's tired of spending her days criss-crossing the city to search for items for her clients.

She is currently remodelling a hair salon and is finding it frustrating to do simple tasks, such as searching for a specific type of drawer handle for stylists' stations.

"I am looking for the kinds of handles so that the cords from the hairdryers won't catch, and now I have to go to six or seven places and search for those handles. You can't just go and buy them online necessarily, because the client wants to see them."

Ultimately, she says, Improve will save money for her clients because she won't be spending so much time in transit searching for products.

Jeff Freedman of Classic Crystal, a custom-glass design company, says he bought a showroom at Improve as a way to increase foot traffic to his business. He says few customers visit his current showroom, which doubles as the manufacturing centre. At Improve, he hopes to bring in people who might not be looking for glass projects but will discover his store organically.

And he's also impressed with Improve's marketing plan – each store will pay a $200 per month flat rate for advertising. He says he's spent a lot of money on ads in the past, "and never really got any return on it."

Ms. Rogers feels Improve will appeal to anyone doing renovations in Toronto, no matter what their budget.

"If they do it properly and they get the proper cross-section of stores [at all price points] it is a very appealing idea."