LIZ: UP TO YOU is a store that caters to the client and likewise the buyer, essentially leaving the choice “up to them” about what they buy, and what you stock. What was the motivation to start a uniquely voyeuristic shopping experience?
DIMITRA: The motivation came about 5 years ago when I was in Europe and I was just walking around shops and I saw so many great designers that I had never seen before, they were independent designers doing really great things, they were mixing an aesthetic and an idea together, and I had never seen that done in Toronto so what I wanted to do ( what both of us wanted to do) was to create a different type of shopping experience, one that allowed people to almost travel around the world and shop, because you’ll see almost all of our products are from around the world. What we really wanted to do is to bring something to Toronto that hadn’t been done before, and the voyeuristic experience just followed, you know I haven’t been to a lot of stores where you feel as though somebody lives here, customers always ask “do you guys live here?” No that would be a little distracting…
LIZ: And it would be really hard to have to throw all the stuff off the bed, so neatly displayed, and make it up again every morning! We are talking worse than throw pillows here!
DIMITRA: yeah I know! But a lot of people think we live here, it just kind of has that homey feeling.
LIZ: You mention Europe, where exactly in Europe did you find inspiration, was there a certain country?
DIMITRA: I’d say specifically it was London, they are a little wild over there, and they take a straight forward idea and make it new and you ask yourself, how didn’t I think of that? That’s what all of their products are and I love that, they skew something that you think is normal and give a cool twist to it, so everything I saw in London was wild, and that’s where we first started to get a lot of the products from.
LIZ: You are Canadian retailers in a very U.S. influenced sales market, how important is carrying local Canadian merchandise to you?
DIMITRA: Well unfortunately we don’t have a lot or Canadian yet, because I just don’t want to carry a lot of the same stuff that other stores do. I notice when walking through different design shops, you typically see them carrying the same thing, everybody has the same supplier, and we try and steer away from that, so bringing Canadian is something we have to do very strategically, and it is something that we are looking into now, we just didn’t start off that way.
LIZ: What are some of your favourite things about Toronto and why was it important for you to have a shop in Toronto? What makes Torontonian buyers unique?
DIMITRA: What I like about Toronto is that it is very multicultural, you have a lot of different people with different backgrounds all together, and it’s not like the states which are considered a melting pot, instead here it’s more of a mosaic, that’s what I learned in Canadian popular culture!
LIZ: me too! (Laughs)
DIMITRA: Yeah that’s what I like about it; the products that we sell because they come from around the world and so do most Torontonians, that people can appreciate them, because everybody is from different areas around the world.
LIZ: You are a brother and sister team, do you work well together? What are some of the pros and cons of working with family? Is there one of you that is more business savvy and one that handles the visual aspects , or do you both contribute equally? Do you both dabble in a little bit of the two?
DIMITRA: Actually we work really well together, we excel in different areas, so when we come together choosing products or dealing with customers, all of our weaknesses and strengths kind of work together, so we are always bouncing off of each other. That said, okay we do have days where I am punching him in the side because he’s being a pain, but actually he’s my best friend so it’s cool to be able to work with your best friend everyday. As you get older you tend to see that you shift away from your family, so it’s nice to be able to come here and reconnect everyday and then kind of go our separate ways. We both contribute in our own way to both of those areas, I am more of the computer, website person, and my brother is really good with products, dealing with customers. So it’s always a give and take.
LIZ: You were previously a teacher, how did you find yourself in the world of retail sales? You renew your certification each year; does this mean you would ever go back?
DIMITRA: I used to work at the GAP as a kid, so I did that, but like I said I went to Europe and that was before I started teacher’s college and when I went there I thought “I like this!” but at the same time I'll become a teacher, see how that works, so I went to school for a year, and I just really didn’t like it, but I thought I’ll try it out a couple of years and become a teacher with the TDSB. I did grade 5 and 6 but in the back of my mind it’s not something that made me really happy or excited and while I was a teacher, at night I would do a business plan, contact designers, so I was pretty much moonlighting. So retail is something I’ve always done and in seeing these designers, it seemed like a perfect fit and something that made me happy. The reason I renew every year is because it’s something I did work hard for and even though I won’t go back, I still want that card, it’s the satisfaction of, I worked really hard that year, it wasn’t fun it was very stressful and I did it. The card is like my trophy.
LIZ: okay so no plans to go back?
DIMITRA: No, actually the funny thing is I was asked to be a lecturer at the explorer design show that was here, so I did that and then they asked me to go to Ryerson and lecture, so I was still teaching but in a different way.
LIZ: I guess in a way that you probably prefer.
LIZ: What are some of your favourite products that you carry, and what would you say are your most popular?
DIMITRA: It’s sort of like picking your favourite child…I like the smoking mitten, it was actually featured on Jay Leno, it has a little metal eyelet so you put your cigarette in, so when you are outside you don’t have to worry about your hands.
LIZ: Neat, but I don’t smoke,
DIMITRA: I don’t smoke either, but I own this product, I love it! It’s one of my favourites, but I don’t smoke. I have it on my coffee table, its art; it’s such a smart idea. So this has to be the most popular item we have right now. I also love these drip hooks…and another favourite of mine are the “clever covers”. Let’s say you’re reading people magazine, and you don’t want people to see what you are reading, or let’s say you are a guy and you are reading something… it makes it look like you are reading advanced quantum physics. I was asked by someone, “do you understand it?” and I said “yeah I do”, but it was really people magazine under the cover. It’s just really funny; there is a Japanese one too. The quirky things are some of my favourite, I like the whipped rings too; they just came into the store a little while ago.
LIZ: What is the process of stocking your store with merchandise, as I read that you do not follow trends? Do you buy what you like, or do you try and incorporate key trends and also what you like? A bit of both maybe?
DIMITRA: No we don’t follow any trends, like you said; we make them. The way we pick things, first is what we like. Sometimes my brother will like something that maybe I’m not a fan of, or vice versa, but then upon thinking about it more, we are always thinking about the aesthetic and the idea and the way it comes together, that's how we choose our products, it's not if it's stylish at the moment. What I have noticed is that a lot of our products, we’ll choose them and then six months later they become popular, the internet people will start talking about them, I think we're always a step ahead when it comes to choosing our products and creating our own trends.
LIZ: You mention on your site that the products you carry have a strong “buzz” about them and often your products are ahead of the trends in North America. You stock things that will often garner attention or trend status years later here in Canada. Have you always had a knack for picking up on the trends, or does the fact that you resource most of your stock from Europe play a roll, as they are usually ahead of the times? Do you believe this is what sets UP TO YOU apart from other Canadian shops?
DIMITRA: I think we do have a knack for that, even things I purchased before I opened the store, for example I had the first iPod in Toronto, I bought it right away. I think I've always had that knack of being a little ahead of other people and I think that translates well to the store.
LIZ: What type of shopping experience do you like to create for customers; the shop is set up like a loft apartment, how intentional was that? How important are the senses to you when shopping? Is your approach to stimulate our tactile and visual sensibilities?
DIMITRA: The experience is very laid back, we are not really pushy. People can sit down, we chat about design, it's very much look around. We have the product information and stories printed right next to the products so you can read it on your own time, you don’t have to feel like we are always behind you explaining what everything is. A lot of the products they are quirky and people don't know what they are so those stories always help guide them, so for that reason the experience is very laid back, and it makes sense to be laid back because we are set up like an apartment. I never liked walking into a store and having five people look at me like they are going to jump at any moment. When people are choosing products I want to be honest with them, this doesn’t work for you or this doesn’t look good on you, because I know that I have bought a lot of things and sometimes sales people have not always been honest, so we try and cater to the customer in a very laid back way.
LIZ: Any regrets, or rather would you change anything about how you got to this point, and how UP TO YOU has been established?
DIMITRA: were are pleased with how everything has worked out, if there was something… I maybe would have not bought as much clothing as we did at the beginning, because we thought concept store, we should sell clothing and home accessories. But that also showed us that a lot of people were not into the clothing and it also pushed us into the direction that we are just going to do personal accessories, so in the end it did work out for the best. It showed us what we excel in.
LIZ: Last, any parting advice for entrepreneurs, wanting to get into the business of retail sales?
DIMITRA: If I had to give advice, well do you watch Madmen?
LIZ: yeah I do.
DIMITRA: Okay well I have to quote Donald Draper: “Your success is dependent on you standing out and not fitting in”, so that’s what I would tell people, stand out, make sure that you are creating a buzz about yourself and that you are doing something that you love, but is also different, don’t try and be like everybody else. I am just tired of waking into these generic stores one after the other, you have to find your niche, find what’s special about you and the products you want to sell.
The notorious "clever covers"
This is a little thing I like to do and I once saw done on a Canadian late night CBC show called “The Hour”, where you ask guests random questions and they have to answer with the first thing that comes to mind:
1. Have you ever or will you ever wear crocs? No
2. Nerds or Jocks? Nerds
3. Who is the smartest person you know? My brother
4. PETA, saving the world or just a little crazy? Crazy
5. Granny smith or McIntosh? McIntosh
6. Spiderman, Superman or Batman? Spiderman
7. Christmas or Halloween? Christmas
8. What was your last meal? Crispy cream doughnut
9. Planes, trains or automobiles? Automobiles
10. Biggest case of buyer’s remorse? iPod nano ( the camera one)
11. Fictional character you’d like to marry? Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
12. Jeopardy or wheel of fortune? Wheel of fortune
13. Deal or no deal? No deal
14. Best hangover remedy? Quiet dark room
15. Tribal tattoos, hot or not? Not
16. First thing you ever stole? Hotel soaps and shower cap from the MGM Grand
17. Prince William or Harry? Harry
18. Clowns, funny or scary? Scary
UP TO YOU is located at 1483 Queen Street East, Canada , tel: 416-778-6487 do yourself a favour and check them out, they also have an online shop