When you think of Toronto’s “Cashman” Russell Oliver, you probably think of gold trinkets, wads of cash and that annoyingly catchy jingle rather than Hermès handbags or Cartier cufflinks.
In fact you probably consider him kooky more than anything — whether covered head to toe in silver spray paint or dressed as the “Loan Arranger” cowboy in his television ads. But Oliver couldn’t care less.
After 40 years in the gold-buying game, the veteran pitchman from those corny commercials is not only in expansion mode, he’s also changed his tune recently with a return to his retail roots at his new store on Yonge St. north of Wellesley.
“It’s like I’ve come full circle,” he says.
In his decades of buying bling like gold chains (Mr. T was both a customer and appeared in an old commercial) watches, coins and even teeth, and then shipping them off to a refinery for profit, Oliver also set aside some of the nearly new trinkets in his safe because “they were just too beautiful” to send to a smelter, he explains.
“It took a while to accumulate this collection. I had 3,000 pieces just sitting in a vault in the dark for years,” he says.
With wife Barbara’s love of designer purses, a collection of handbags began, too, mostly purchased from customers unloading them at the longtime Eglinton and Avenue Rd. location. They have since been refurbished for sale.
So Oliver is happily back on the selling side of the counter with display cases full of designer-name jewels and walls covered with high-end handbags with a new twist from the old days at his Yorkville store in the 1970s: It’s all used stuff.
“Back then we were importing from Italy. I would have said, ‘That’s garbage,’” he says, referring to items that weren’t brand new.
Not today, especially now that he has some high-tech measuring equipment on site, including a precious metals analyzer that can determine the precise amount of gold or platinum in an item, and a device that can weigh diamonds to a precise fraction. (He used to rely on regular scales.)
His pride and joy, though, is an Entrupy purse scanner, which authenticates designer handbags like Prada and Chanel and weeds out the fakes right on the spot with the help of a simple app. The handheld device is placed directly on the purse and magnifies up to 350,000 times the numerous images sent through the app, such as the stitching and the logo. Artificial intelligence algorithms analyze the images to determine the authenticity in real time, usually in 15 or 20 minutes, according to the Entrupy website.
“We’re offering the service to the public now. For $40 they get their luxury purses analyzed while they wait and a guaranteed authentication certificate,” Oliver notes.
Sometimes he and his staff still eyeball certain items as they do deals at the buying counter on the lower level, accessed by staircase at the side of the store on St. Joseph St. (A rather intimidating security guard greets customers upstairs at the entrance of the retail store. Both video and audio surveillance are set up throughout the premises, too, so whatever you’re whispering about in front gets picked up in the back.)
At one point a guy decked out in Prada gear wants to unload two Louis Vuitton canvas tote and laptop bags that he no longer uses but look to be almost new and in good condition. He says the pair were originally $1,500 and hopes to sell them for $900. After a bit of back-and-forth — two staffers literally go in and out of a backroom a few times during the negotiation — they settle on $600. After the man leaves, the staff figure they will be able to sell them in the store for about $400 each.
Graduate student Abbie Kaczmarek stops by with a rose gold Cartier ring she purchased there the week before, to get it polished. She bought it for $800 and Oliver points out that brand new it would have cost her $1,350.
“I love nice things. Why buy it new when it’s real and looks new?” she says.
Oliver boasts he probably has one of the largest collections of refurbished Cartier jewellery out there, with 120 items in the case. He also has a sizable amount of Gucci, Tiffany, David Yurman, Bulgari and Birks, to name a few.
Meanwhile, the refurbished designer bags have some eye-popping price tags, such as Hermès bags for $10,000-plus and one coveted, crocodile black Birkin handbag safely tucked in a locked glass cabinet that would regularly retail for about $90,000 (Oliver bought it for $45,000 and says he will probably sell for about $70,000.)
Most items in the store are sold anywhere between 30 per cent and 70 per cent off the retail price customers would typically find at the original designer stores nearby on Bloor St.
“I like the variety of people that come through,” Oliver says, noting that his Yonge St. spot has an average of 1,500 people walking by per hour — many more than any other location he’s ever had.
“We are top of mind after 46 years and $20 million in TV advertising since 1993,” Oliver says proudly.
York University marketing professor Alan Middleton says Oliver’s approach “annoys ad people to no end” because it’s over the top, and it works.
“It’s absolutely distinctive and in-your-face — a little like Donald Trump, though I suspect (Oliver) is a little nicer,” he says with a giggle.
“He wants to be known for the art of the deal, and the average public gets the tongue-in-cheek aspect to what he does,” Middleton adds.
“And he’s expanding now, so it clearly works for him.”
Oliver’s sons head up the new buying centres opened over the past year, where people can sell their items (they’re not retail stores). Located in Oakville, Pickering and Woodbridge, the centres make deals on everything from gold to gift cards and laptops to mortgages.
His “cash kids” have rotated through each location as managers, including Jordan, 36, Jarred, 31, and Jonas, 28. Eldest son Justin ditched the family business a few years ago to move to Las Vegas, where he is a professional poker player.
“I like interacting with customers, doing the appraisals and growing the business through social media,” says Jarred, who got a philosophy degree at Western University in London, Ont.
Of course there’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills, languishing in Granny’s jewelry box and ready to be scooped up, Oliver insists.
“You’d be shocked at how much gold is still in the GTA. Hundreds of ounces a week come to us. The peak was in 2011 (when the gold price was pushing record highs just shy of $2,000 (U.S.) an ounce) but we still do a lot because the gold price in Canadian funds is quite high,” he notes.
“So many immigrants come to Ontario with bags full of it, plus people are buying new gold on a daily basis,” he adds.