Toronto businessman Russell Oliver, aka ‘The Cashman’, has opened a luxury goods retail store in downtown Toronto. It marks the first time that the well-known public figure has been in the retail business since 1991, and his store already seeing tremendous success since opening last month. We interviewed Mr. Oliver last week inside of his new store, where he’s now spending much of his time after previously focusing on multiple purchasing/wholesaling outlets.
The new 1,000 square foot Oliver Jewellery retail space is located at 620 Yonge Street, just north of Wellesley Street, and is less than 500 metres/1,500 feet south of prestigious Bloor Street West. The store features refurbished luxury products including designer handbags and jewellery, in an intimate retail space prominently located at the northwest corner of St. Joseph Street. We’ll discuss it in more detail below.
We interviewed Mr. Oliver about the new store, as well as the interesting history of how he got started in the retail and gold wholesaling business. In 1971, Mr. Oliver had set aside funds to attend Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax but instead of registering for classes, he used the money to buy out a small jewellery business on the third floor of a building near the intersection of Queen Street and Yonge Street in Toronto. Being upstairs, business was slow due to lack of awareness/foot traffic, so Mr. Oliver hired youth to hand out fliers promoting his business. Business immediately picked up, and Mr. Oliver soon recognized the ability to drive sales through promotions.
In 1973, Mr. Oliver moved operations to Toronto’s Yorkville area which, just a few years before, had been home to the city’s ‘hippie scene’. His first Yorkville store was on Yorkville Avenue, just west of Bay Street, and he relocated to nearby Cumberland Street in 1973. Mr. Oliver’s wife Barbara was an employee at his Yorkville store, and they married after several months of courtship. Promotions became part of Mr. Oliver’s business, ranging from commercials with ‘The A-Team’ TV star ‘Mr. T’ (who was also a customer) to giving away a Mercedes with the purchase of an 8-carat diamond (Canadian actor John Candy bought it, foregoing the car as he already owned a Mercedes). Business in Yorkville also wasn’t without potential danger — in April of 1984, then-36 year old Mr. Oliver was shot by two robbers who entered his store at 11:30am on a Saturday, and he fortunately only sustained injury to his right foot.
Oliver Jewellers, as it was then called, operated in Yorkville until 1991. Prior to that time, the area boasted about 40 jewellery retailers. Mr. Oliver notes that almost all have since closed, with a handful of jewellers now operating in the area. The 1991 closure of Oliver Jewellers marked the closing of the first chapter of his retail business, which eventually morphed into the business of buying jewellery and gold in a wholesale capacity.
In 1992, Russell Oliver opened a storefront on Toronto’s Ellington Avenue West, operating as a buying centre for gold, jewellery, and gemstones. Mr. Oliver has since expanded to four buying locations, with his Oakville premises now being the most productive. Mr. Oliver utilized advertising extensively to create brand awareness, becoming a personality in his own right. TV, radio commercials, billboards on transit — Mr. Oliver says that he’s spent over $20 million on advertising in 20 years, now spending between $1.5 million and $1.8 million annually to be ahead of the competition. Given the proliferation of cable television and other media sources, Mr. Oliver has become a recognizable face not just in Toronto, but across Canada.
About five years ago, Mr. Oliver started collecting brand name jewellery and handbags, occasionally selling a few pieces by appointment only. Several months ago, he made the decision to get back into retailing, recognizing that he had product of interest to the public. After deciding against a retail space at 703 Yonge Street, just south of Bloor Street (the rent was too high and there was a three-year demolition clause in the lease), Mr. Oliver found the prominent retail space at 620 Yonge Street, formerly occupied by a women’s fashion retailer. The space sees over 1,500 people walk by every hour, he explained, and is strategically located near the University of Toronto (with brand-aware international students), multiple hospitals, the Government of Ontario, and the city’s vibrant Church-Wellesley 'gay village'. The new store is already busy throughout the day, to the point that Mr. Oliver is concerned that he could run out of stock if he’s not able to consistently secure new product.
Luxury-branded handbags are particularly popular, Mr. Oliver explained, with some designers, particularly Chanel, flying off the shelves. Some shoppers are making the five-minute stroll south of Bloor Street for bargains, which are generally priced between 30% and 70% less than retail, with product that is refurbished so that it appears new. Interestingly, the new Oliver Jewellery store also stocks some designer items unavailable or otherwise difficult to find — one crocodile Hermes Birkin bag that we saw was priced at $90,000, and other rare designs were priced in excess of $10,000 each. Names abound, including Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Prada, Gucci, Celine, Chloé, and other brands you’d find on nearby Bloor Street West and further south down Yonge Street at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
The Yonge Street store, being true to Russell Oliver’s concept, also features a buying centre on its lower level (accessed from an exterior side stairway on St. Joseph Street with an image of Mr. Oliver on the back wall). Customers can bring their jewellery/gold/watches/handbags into the premises for evaluation and purchase. We were shown some high-tech measuring devices in the lower-level evaluation room, including a machine that can determine the level of gold in a product, as well as a device that can accurately weigh diamonds.
Mr. Oliver expressed a true passion for being back into the world of retailing, saying that he’ll regularly be at his new Yonge Street store. While he discussed his enjoyment of working out of his multiple buying centres throughout the Greater Toronto Area, it’s the busy buzz and immediate profitability of retailing that has now caught his attention. His passion for retail is contagious, with his four sons (all names beginning with the letter ‘J’) also being part of the expanded family business.
See below for four more photos of the new Yonge Street Oliver Jewellery store.