Jon Thiessen couldn't help but be concerned. He had just heard that one his manufacturers' sales reps was seen having a rather animated discussion with a luggage department manager at one of Winnipeg's big department stores.
This was a potentially ominous sign – his family's store, U.N. Luggage, might lose, or have to share, one of its exclusive product lines.
A suitcase-selling venture opened its doors in downtown Winnipeg in 1940. The company, which subsequently incorporated as United Nations Luggage Limited in 1945, began operations as a wholesaler that sought to distribute luggage products to smaller western Canadian towns (for example, a small town in Alberta called Calgary, which in 1947 had a mere 100,000 residents – for more on this hamlet's recent growth, click here).
The business, which was launched by a Mr. Shapera, was eventually sold to his son-in-law, Max Guslits, who continued operating the store just west of Main Street in Winnipeg's Exchange District. During the 1960s the business relocated to Albert Street, but it was forced to move again in the 1980s when its building was expropriated for a parkade. Around this same time, Mr. Guslits' friend and neighbour, Peter Thiessen, purchased the business.
Peter Thiessen's strategy for U.N. Luggage Co. centred on offering his customers an extensive range of high-quality luggage that featured some of the world's most distinctive brands. In addition, the company offered an array of related products that included executive cases, handbags and wallets, as well as a diverse range of travel and office accessories. The store sought to be a destination boutique that stood apart from its competition, regardless of how big or small those competitors happened to be.
Peter's son, Jon, who had managed the store for more than a decade, proudly recalled a recent happening that confirmed the business was on the right track. A well-known Toronto broadcaster stopped by while in Winnipeg to cover an awards ceremony. According to Jon, the customer had been blown away by the quality and range of U.N. Luggage's offerings, and said, "This is the greatest bag store I've seen in Canada."
Featuring names such as Briggs and Riley, Tumi, and Rimowa was, in some ways, a mixed blessing. While high-quality brands brought in customers, the manufacturers were, like just about any business enterprise, also interested in increasing their sales. In practical terms this meant that certain players could be seen as too small to accommodate those growth aspirations.
Even though the little guys, like U.N. Luggage, might plant the seeds, at some point a supplier might decide to replant in a bigger garden. This was where the conversation Mr. Thiessen had heard about came into play. The supplier appeared to be exploring whether a bigger retailer might be interested in carrying its line.
What could Mr. Thiessen do?
The Thiessen family business has been able to retain its brands by reminding suppliers how well the store can sell, or more specifically out-sell, its larger competitors.
What does this 'out-selling' consist of? For starters, personalized expert attention – when Mr. Thiessen spoke to the supplier's sales rep on the next visit he did not hesitate to remind the rep how his store's sales team was more readily available and knowledgeable, and as a result could more effectively explain and demonstrate each product's distinctive features and warranties.
Mr. Thiessen also re-emphasized the extent to which U.N. Luggage offered its customers and suppliers an on-site warranty depot – one of the very few luggage retailers that could actually back up on-site what it sold. To date this Winnipeg retail institution continues to flourish, recently celebrating its 65th anniversary.
The business has also established a healthy online element, with orders coming in from across the country, as well as France and Britain.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Reg Litz is a professor in the Asper School of Business of the University of Manitoba.
This is one of a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.