Settlement House Shops: Thinking big in a small town

Written by Jack Kohane

Nothing intimidates specialty retailer Daphne Mitchell — neither big box chains nor those ubiquitous mass merchandisers sprouting across the suburban landscape. She’s devised a winning strategy to keep customers away from the big guns, and bring them to her furniture and decorative home accessories store.

A grand quest, given that Settlement House Shops, is ensconced in quaint downtown Port Perry, Ont. (pop. 7,000), an hour’s drive north of Toronto.

After 25 years in business, Settlement House was recently recognized by the Canadian Gift & Tableware Association (CGTA) with the coveted Canadian Retailer of the Year award. The award recognizes outstanding achievement in visual merchandising, advertising and promotions and community involvement.

The CGTA’s judges were wowed by the store’s interior, which has grown over the years to 14,000 square feet. “Classy and elegant, the store is very welcoming,” said CGTA’s judges. “No detail has been forgotten.” Sofas, chairs, tables and beds have been artfully arranged in a boutique-like setting. “From the casual placement of a travel journal on a coffee table to the drape of a scalloped-edged quilt tossed on a sleigh bed, the goal is to create an intimate setting,” says the CGTA.

But a welcoming interior isn’t enough to bring new customers to the out-of-the-way store. The CGTA was impressed with Settlement House’s marketing strategies, which include:

  • Touting the shop as a tourist attraction. Settlement House is included in major tourist and guide books, both local and regional.
  • Developing its website. “Our site,, is always kept current and offers changing features and up-to-date information,” Mitchell explains.
  • Placing signs on the highway. “Billboard signs along the highway showcase our historic building and entice customers who may never have thought of visiting Port Perry to come to the downtown core,” she says.
  • Investing in advertising. “I believe in the power of a comprehensive media campaign covering television, radio and newspaper advertising,” says Mitchell. She uses local television and radio stations, but also runs print ads in national home decor magazines, as well as The Toronto Star.

Community involvement also helped score Settlement House the coveted award. The store participates in a host of local events and programs, including donating $1,500 annually to the local Arts Centre; contributing $8,000 to the Port Perry Library; and being instrumental in founding the Downtown Business Association.

Though not specifically pointed out by the CGTA, Mitchell cites her customer-loyalty program as instrumental to her store’s success. Mitchell offers a no-hassle return policy; a frequent candle-buyer club; weekly discount specials for seniors; regular personal calls to customers to inform them of special products and promotions; direct mail thank-you letters, including a coupon; and a Settlement House charge account with no interest or payment for 90 days.

Overall, CGTA deemed the store “worth the drive to Port Perry.” And that’s a very good thing. Because, says Mitchell: “If retailing is primarily about location, location, location, I should have gone out of business long ago.”

Read about other Winners — promising Canadian businesses or business people.

© 2003 Jack Kohane

Originally appeared on