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Internet innovations mean big bucks for Timmins distributor

When entering the Tweed & Hickory department store in downtown Timmins, it’s easy to miss the simple third-story windows that sit above the shop, quietly peering down onto the busy street.
KFS Logistics 1
Marc Soucie, head of KFS Logistics, checks on some of the stockpile of merchandise sitting in the Timmins warehouse in preparation of shipping it to Spain, India and China.

When entering the Tweed & Hickory department store in downtown Timmins, it’s easy to miss the simple third-story windows that sit above the shop, quietly peering down onto the busy street.

However, beyond that glass is one of the biggest distributors of coffee in Canada, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse that is literally packed floor to ceiling with packages, packages and more packages. From this elevated and barely noticeable space nestled in the city’s core, KFS Holdings’ Marc Soucie has used the Internet alongside strong logistical savvy to create a busy distribution centre.

Started just seven years ago in Timmins, the online-focused division of the Cornwall-based company now handles web sales and logistics for 80,000 houseware items from 1,000 companies the world over.

The northern site also acts as a warehouse and distribution facility for the company’s 35 stores throughout Canada, which includes the Tweed & Hickory on the two floors beneath Soucie’s feet.

“We could see over the last 15 years that people’s buying habits were changing, and we figured that down the road, we had better adapt and make some changes,” says Soucie, a partner in KFS and head of the logistics division.

“Otherwise, with the retail environment as we knew it, we would have a difficult time. In order to alleviate those day-to-day stresses, we looked at online and formed KFS Logistics seven years ago, and it’s been going very, very well.”

Anyone looking to make a purchase from one of the company’s online partners, be it for coffee or gourmet syrups or small appliances, will be redirected to the Tweed & Hickory website. As much as 75 per cent of the products sold through the site are shipped directly from the manufacturers; the remaining 25 per cent is shipped to and from the Timmins warehouse.

Since January, the Kirkland Lake-born Soucie has seen more than 500,000 packages shipped through this third-floor Timmins warehouse, ranging from irons to vacuums.

The smallish space also houses 100,000 units of coffee at any given point, as the website is now responsible for approximately 50 per cent of the coffee sales in Canada through the distribution of single-cup coffee such as Keurig, Timothy’s, and Van Houtte.

And as busy as the Timmins site has become, it’s about to get busier. This fall, Soucie plans on expanding big into clothing, with an eye on dealing in 40,000 to 50,000 additional items. This means a jump from 17 employees to 50, including the addition of programmers, content writers and photographers to handle the extra online work.

By expanding into the second floor and into the adjacent building, square footage will expand to 40,000 in anticipation of increasing business tenfold.

Equally aggressive growth plans are in place for other aspects of the company. In the coming months, the option will be rolled out for visitors to the website to be chatted with and assisted in real time by representatives sitting in the Timmins office.

It’s an ambitious plan, but this drive is something Soucie comes by honestly as the son of a long-time Northern Ontario retailer. He grew up learning the ropes from his father, who ran a local clothing store, Seymour’s Men’s Wear, for nearly 50 years.

After working in retail himself for a number of years, Soucie then worked his way up through the KFS ranks, first as a merchandiser and later as partner.

It’s something that’s now bred into the family fibre, as his sister Lynn owns Beddington’s Bed & Bath, with a dozen stores in Toronto and Ottawa.

The work is hardly a 9-to-5 endeavour, with Soucie often burning the midnight oil to ensure problems are dealt with appropriately. To enhance the all-important site visits, KFS Logistics makes extensive, innovative use of the Internet and social media to publicize products and reach as many sets of eyeballs as possible.

This means making strategic use of ads through Google, Amazon and other such services, not to mention social media.

Even Twitter is a remarkable source of interest, where the company’s followers are many and high- rofile, including such figures as Maria Schriver, a member of the Kennedy family and wife to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Altogether, these efforts generate countless hits for the website every single day, with roughly 46 million hits since January. To prove his point about the usefulness of this approach, Soucie fires up his laptop and brings up a digital map of the world. He points to a smattering of coloured dots spread across the world, highlighting each for a second. With the cursor sitting over Beijing, the number 594 pops up. Over the United Kingdom, 44. Over San Francisco, 667. Countless other dots appear in countless other locations.

These, Soucie explains, are the web sales Tweed & Hickory has in those locations in the last week alone.

Specialized deals struck with Canada Post allow for these packages to be delivered within days.

“We’ve been growing and growing and growing, and we’ve managed to refine the software and techniques, and we’re in direct contact with our customers,” says Soucie, who insists on keeping operations in Timmins. “On the web, there’s no more borders, and we can sell to anybody around the world. We are no longer limited by geography.”

Rather than cannibalize traffic from the Tweed & Hickory stores, Soucie says the enhanced online focus has actually increased visits to the physical locations as customers use the site to better inform themselves about what’s available. By this and every other metric he can think of, the company’s web strategy has been a rousing success.

Robert Manseau, senior consultant with the Timmins-based Commerce Management Group, is working with Soucie, and even he has been shocked and surprised by the company’s online victories.

“It flies in the face of all the studies I’ve done in the North that say, ‘Oh, we’re too far away from the markets, the transportation is not going to happen and drag it down,’” says Manseau. “Here’s a group of guys who have taken that and rejigged it completely, and now there’s no net cost of being in Timmins versus being in Toronto, and that blew me away. We need more people like this in the North.”