Design Manitoba: Selling Contemporary Furniture Online and Off
“When we reopen, I look forward to just seeing people. We need people to come back through the door,” says John Tinkler, who co-owns Design Manitoba with John Phelps. “It’s a social business, and you get to know your clients quite well.”
Tinkler originally started out building contemporary furniture with simple, clean lines before branching out to open Design Manitoba 44 years ago. “We started Design Manitoba because there was nothing like it in Winnipeg selling contemporary furniture,” says Tinkler, referring to the clean lines of the mostly Canadian brand names carried at the store. Design Manitoba stocks “whatever is contemporary at the time,” says Tinkler of the store, now in Osborne Village.
The store’s wide range of customers includes couples moving into a large new family home and wanting furniture proportioned to fit a great room, as well as someone seeking furniture for a small condo that is a first home or after downsizing. “We’re now helping the children and grandchildren of former customers.” The store carries sofas, sectionals, dining room tables, ottomans, large contemporary framed artwork and rugs.
Design Manitoba entered a partial lockdown in November. “This time, we were more prepared. It was not as dramatic as the first lockdown,” says Tinkler. During the second lockdown, the store was open to selling essential items such as home office furniture, lighting fixtures, and kitchen appliances while also offering curbside pickup or delivery.
Although Design Manitoba always had a website, the store used downtime during the first lockdown to add more products online, make the site easier to shop and ensure it’s easy to navigate. While people have gotten more used to online shopping, Tinkler notes that “furniture is a tricky one for online sales. When we’re not locked down, you can come in person to sit on it, feel the fabric, and see if it’s comfortable to you.”
Sales for the store remained in the usual range for 2020, although there was a significant fluctuation between when the store was in lockdown versus fully open. The end of the first lockdown brought a rush of shoppers who wanted to upgrade a living space since they were spending more time at home. “People are stuck at home, looking at bare walls, sitting on uncomfortable sofas. As soon as lockdown stopped, we had a big surge,” says Tinkler. Demand is high for home office chairs with ergonomic support for people who’ve been working at their dining room table, and Tinkler observes more people buying sectional seating that includes recliners: “Comfort is king.”
While COVID-19 has made ordering furniture take longer due to lumber shortages, material shortages and factory shutdowns, Design Manitoba does have a selection on hand. “We have a 10,000 square foot store, so there’s a lot of stock available now,” says Tinkler. For example, Canadian-made sectionals can take three months to come in, while European brands will take longer.
The store offers free design services both online and in-person to help with space planning. People can get advice on whether items will look good together in terms of scale, colours and style.
While COVID-19 may have stopped the large international design shows where Tinkler loved spotting an unexpected find, the shows have gone virtual. At the same time, manufacturers ensure their collection is online to show off the latest trends. “A little bit of retro, a little bit of mid-century modern, natural walnut is very hot right now,” says Tinkler. Grey is still popular as a versatile choice that can be enlivened with a pop of colour in an ottoman. And yes, shag rugs are back, baby—pandemic or not.”
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