While department stores scramble to attract walk-in traffic, well-curated neighbourhood stores, like Toronto’s Mjölk, are staying afloat by remaining niche and thinking local.
There’s no question the virtual marketplace has taken a bite out of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail model. Some shops, though, are thriving by offering what the Internet can’t: quality control. In Toronto, the design store Mjölk, which specializes in carefully curated accessories and furniture shipped from Scandinavia and Japan, appears to have usurped the online shopping threat by staying niche.
“I think now is a very hard time to be a smart consumer,” says John Baker, who co-owns the store with Juli Daoust Baker, his wife. “The things that look the best in photographs are usually poor quality. People have a hard time buying a sweater online, for instance, when they can’t try it on first.”
One way Mjölk has set itself apart is by crafting its own line of small-batch products that embrace local manufacturing. Over the past few years the Bakers have invited such international names as Anderssen & Voll of Norway, Luca Nichetto and Oji Masanori to develop accessories that are then fabricated by Toronto’s rich community of ceramicists, metalsmiths and woodworkers. The close proximity to production ensures the highest standards. The couple spends about a year developing each product, and launches only one collection at a time.
The collections have grown in number to six since the first one launched in 2013 with a milk and sugar set, Ceremony, designed by Swedish firm Claesson Koivisto Rune. Though modest in size and scale, the finished product nonetheless required four different artisans to realize it. The appeal is in its craftsmanship, the kind that has to be seen – and touched – to be fully appreciated. Says Baker of the items in the set: “Their physical presence is pretty alluring.” In fact, the bulk of Mjölk’s sales are through the shop, with only 10 or 20 per cent of purchases made online.
Réunion, a table lamp, is the newest item. It brings together a base of the finest mouth-blown glass (fabricated in Murano, Italy, near where the lamp’s designer, Luca Nichetto, was born) and a painted spun-aluminum shade by Harnisch, one of Toronto’s oldest manufacturers of handcrafted lighting metalwork. “We don’t have the volume to compete on price, so we have to offer more,” Baker says. “It’s a whole other way of looking at a business.”