The furniture business had a tough year in 2008. “There was the financial crisis, a sudden onslaught of competition from Asia, the Canadian dollar was strong and there was a strong shift toward online sales in the furniture business, all at the same time,” says Réjean Poitras, president and CEO of Quebec family-run furniture manufacturer Amisco. “We weren’t even selling online at the time.”
But Amisco, based in L’Islet, Que., 100 km northeast of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River, saw opportunity in adversity. The company came out swinging, doubling sales in the past four years. “We decided the best way to compete with Asian imports, not to mention Ikea, was to develop a line of furniture that could be highly personalized. Customers can combine styles and colours according to personal taste,” says Poitras, 52, the grandson of company founder Martin Poitras.
Amisco, founded in 1954 to build steel bases for school desks, specializes in tubular steel structures but has adjusted its offerings over the decades to keep up with changing tastes and needs. Poitras’s parents, who took over from his grandfather in the 1970s, were the first large-scale manufacturer of bunk beds with metal tube frames in North America.
When metal furniture started to slip out of fashion in the 2000s, Poitras added wood and upholstered surfaces. In 2011, Amisco acquired the upholstery supplier Groupe Gibo. “We offer 14 colours of steel and 80 different fabrics, plus six colours of wood or veneer. We watch the decor trends closely, adding and subtracting colours every year.”
Amisco deliberately took its time building an online presence. “Storefront furniture stores are our traditional customer base and we want to support them, so we thought long and hard about the best online approach,” says Poitras. The solution, in 2012, was a web-to-store site that directs customers to storefront retailers throughout North America. “Customers can order from our site but the selection is limited. Or they can do their research online then go to stores and choose from literally millions of combinations of colour, material and design.” Amisco delivers purchases from its site within 48 hours, and custom furniture in two weeks.
Today, 50% of Amisco’s sales are to traditional furniture retailers, including small independent retailers and larger furniture chains like Quebec’s Brault & Martineau. The other half are online through the company’s site and on e-commerce sites like Amazon, Wayfair, Overstock and Costco.
Half of Amisco’s business volume is in the United States. “We manufacture and delivery a high-quality product quickly,” says Poitras. “You can’t expect a Chinese furniture supplier to sell you the chair you like in your choice of colour, but we can.”