Toni Tiraborelli, President of Toni Plus, started Canada’s exclusive high-end, plus-sized clothing chain when the opportunity came ringing in 1992. Then owner of Bayview Village, one of Canada’s most prestigious shopping centres, called Tiraborelli asking her to open a plus-sized clothing store to cater to the centre’s discerning affluent customer base.
Tiraborelli’s background is in fashion merchandizing, and was already operating a store for “missy sized” women who wanted great quality, impeccable service and fashion forward options, and based Toni Plus on these same principles—fashion “with a twist”, available in sizes 14 to 22.
“At the time,” says Tiraborelli, “there wasn’t a concept out there that was right for their centre. They needed something that was a little more fashion forward and high-end.
“I realized there was an underserved market of women who required designer and better quality merchandize in plus sizes, and we have been doing it ever since.”
Tiraborelli’s business acumen has helped her turn challenges into opportunities when the Toni Plus brand was first starting. “We found what made us very special also created the most challenges for us, and that was finding the type of product that was not readily available to major chains. It was initially very difficult to source the type of product we wanted—the same level of fashion and quality that customers equate with certain brands. So we developed relationships over the years and spearheaded, in many cases, the entry into plus sizes within those brands—Canadian designers Simon Chang, Brian Bailey and Dominique DeSentino for instance.”
Toni Plus has consistently offered the most well rounded collection of designer labels available in North America and Europe to the higher-end plus-sized clothing market. By combining the selection with high tenure, knowledgeable staff and a well-developed shopping experience, Toni Plus locations attracts a very loyal, high-spending client base. In the highly competitive and fleeting world of fashion retail, one need no further evidence of the brand’s success than its upcoming 20th anniversary. Many stores later, Toni Plus is regarded as Canada’s pre-eminent plus-sized women’s fashion retailer.
“The key to Toni Plus has been combining the product that our customers desire with a high level of service and a comfortable, welcoming shopping environment. Having a defined concept and staying true to it has been the key to our success,” says Tiraborelli. “This gave us credibility with the consumer, as does a knowledgeable staff in our stores and great team in our head office. Our store managers and staff have been with the company for many years, our manager from our first location at Bayview Village has been with us from the beginning. The minimal turnover of staff in our stores gives us great continuity with our clients.”
All operations are centralized at the company’s head office in North York. The facility includes office space, warehousing and distribution, as well as a clearance centre where end-of-season sales are held. This entire infrastructure has the capacity to manage the administration and strategic requirement of the planned expansion with little or no further ramping up.
A crucial aspect of the Toni Plus operational infrastructure is the company’s heavy investment in a UNIX-based enterprise management system called SalesLink, which ties all aspects of the head office and store level operations into one networked solution. The SalesLink system streamlines the company’s inventory management and distribution, as well as store POS and productivity, customer data management, tied directly into the Toni Plus accounting system. This early investment will be a major competitive advantage going forward, and will facilitate greater controls on inventory, staff productivity and costumer purchase history.
The next chapter
The next chapter of Toni Plus begins with another phone call, this time from the GMM of The Bay, with the approval of Bonnie Brooks, newly queened President and CEO of The Bay and the retail maven behind the brands recent transformation into the 21st century. Toni Plus was asked to be a part of The Bay’s rebranding and purveyor of plus sized clothes for the retailer.
“The Bay recognized us for our experience and our brand equity, because Toni Plus has gained national recognition as a brand that is synonymous with better plus-sized clothing. Because of the brand that we have created, and our correlated experience, they approached us and asked us to create a store-in-store concept for them.”
The first of these stores was opened in The Bay’s Queen Street flagship store in Toronto, and a second in The Bay at Southgate in Edmonton, with another to follow in the spring. “In the immediate phase, The Bay has requested Toni Plus to provide a Toni Plus Shop-in-Shop in its better performing properties. In total, some 11 properties have been identified across the country that could support better to bridge plus sized merchandise over time,” says Tiraborelli.
“It made me feel proud that we have developed a brand and the recognition that we have developed for a small company,” she continues. “Their goals are our goals, to build a brand and be recognized for a certain level of merchandize and we were very excited about the opportunity.”
Looking toward the future, Tiraborelli has her sights set on making Toni Plus a national brand through location expansion and the development of the private toni T label. Manufactured primarily in Canada, the collection will have the “same level of quality as our designer brands, with a focus on great essential wardrobe pieces and also to fill market voids as far as trends we would like to offer. Our goal is to grow this blend to a larger proportion of the mix over time.”