Gravity Pope: Taking heart and sole east
Louise Dirks is chief executive of Gravity Pope, which began as a small import shop in Edmonton and has grown to a $15-million independent enterprise with an online store and multiple footwear and apparel stores in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. This month, Ms. Dirks will open her first store in Toronto at the trendy intersection of Queen Street West and Ossington Avenue. The Financial Post’s Jodi Lai spoke with Ms. Dirks about Gravity Pope’s turning point and how it is innovative in its market. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Q Do you consider opening a store in Toronto a big milestone?
A It’s funny because I didn’t think of it that way until now. It’s an insane step forward. I’m moving across the country, and it’s a full-on clothing, footwear and accessories store all under one roof. It’s a micro department store of sorts, which is also a new adventure for us, so I’m learning a lot on the way. I’m learning that I bite off a lot and, hopefully, I can chew it.
Q Are you expecting to face any challenges in Toronto that you haven’t faced in the West?
A The challenges I worry about are sales and traffic and just whether people are going to want to shop there. One of the things I’ve done well with is marketing the stores and I think our unique approach to retail has helped naturally market the stores. I know we have a base of people in Toronto that are excited for us to open there. We have such a huge variety of footwear that isn’t readily available in the market.
Q Do you see any differences with the Toronto market and the western one?
A There will be differences with what people like in Toronto as opposed to the West. Just from having stores in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, I’ve seen that there are slight differences between those markets. Calgary likes high heels and shiny things. Edmonton likes flats and more casual footwear. Vancouver likes fashion and trends. Eastern-based shoppers shop differently from Western-based ones. It’s not really brand-related, but style-related. We always cater the stores to the cities they’re in.
Q It’s a pretty crowded market. How do you differentiate yourself?
A Not only do we have a unique collection, but we have a large, unique collection of products. It started with the import business. I was not afraid to import back in the late ’80s when importing was very different than it is today. There is a lot of product being moved across the world now, so having import goods is not as unique now. When I started, there were very few people importing anything. I did all my own customs clearing and brokerage for the first 15 years. That’s what set us apart: the unique collection of products that weren’t readily available.
Q What do you consider the turning point for Gravity Pope?
A Opening the Vancouver store really solidified things in the West back in 2004. Especially because it was a landmark location. It was a showpiece, so at that point, even though I’d been in business for 14 years, it really solidified Gravity Pope as a company. It also completed the triangle of having stores in all the major western cities. Toronto builds on this.
Q How have you been innovative in your industry?
A The amount of product alone is unique in this industry, as well as the quantity and range of brands we carry. We carry some brands that can be found only in our store in North America. The combination of choices and selection of products leans toward the fashionable side of the brands we buy. Our staff is also very well versed on the products. We do product training seminars. We also give them a huge book at the beginning and we require them to have a deep knowledge of the product. We really want the customer to understand what they are buying and why they are buying it. The combination of bringing in unique brands and educating the customer makes us innovative.
Q What is the key to your success as an entrepreneur?
A Insanity. It’s hard work and a lot of focus. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I put my heart and soul into it. I think the key is that I love what I’m doing. Sometimes I hate it, but most times, I really enjoy it. I’m not specifically doing it as a money-maker. I love to find unique, artistic, talented brands that I can bring into a marketplace.
Q Does it help that you take a very hands-on approach?
A It helps a lot, although sometimes it’s a hindrance. I have help in buying, but I love getting as many opinions on what we should buy as possible. I sometimes do too much, and I don’t have enough time in a day, so when you do everything yourself, not having enough time is a hindrance. I think a lot of people at this stage would hand off the buying, but for me, it’s the most important part of the business.
Q Have you experienced issues dealing with growth?
A Every day. The biggest struggle is trying to keep everything afloat, while making sure everyone is happy and we have enough staff. Having a good, stable team has helped so much with growth. We work together well and we all like to do what we’re doing and we’re all good at different aspects of the business. I almost feel like they’re my partners. I feel so close to them and I would never want to do with without them. The struggles I have, we work on them together. As we grow, there will always be issues with the everyday running of the business. All the issues that need to be resolved become more difficult as growth happens, which requires more people who understand and know how to run things. That’s always the challenge.
Q Did you ever think you were being innovative, but it didn’t work for your business?
A Originally in the Edmonton shoe store, we had a café in the back. We were way ahead of our time — this was pre-Starbucks days, so it didn’t go over so well. We had this extra space at the back of the shoe store, so we started putting bits of clothing in, and soon after that it turned into a whole clothing department. Fast forward, and I had outgrown that space for clothing, so I looked for a bigger space specifically for clothing. I ended up opening up two new clothing stores in Edmonton and Vancouver simultaneously one month apart from each other, which was very taxing. I feel like I’m going through that now with opening the Toronto store.
Q What do you see for the future of Gravity Pope?
A My main focus is to stay sane while I get the store in Toronto open! I want to grow a solid market in Toronto for Gravity Pope. Toronto will be my main focus for a while. My store in Calgary is also too small and I need a bigger space there. If the Toronto store shows it can move in the right direction, I think I will take that concept of a mini-department store and do the same thing in Calgary over the next few years. I’ve always grown quite organically and I’m in no rush to open more stores. It has to feel right: to grow in the markets that I’m already in and keep my customers happy.