They spill more than we drink

There were gawkers galore as I wandered through the new Nordstrom store in the Eaton Centre, part of the U.S. retailer’s push into Canada. This is the fourth location to open with two more to come. This latest is sizeable, 220,000 sq ft on three floors with a bar and lounge on the second floor called Habitant and a $14 signature drink called Dundas Streetcar. Those are two nice Canadian touches, except for the fact that the main ingredient in the drink is bourbon.

I said gawkers because there were few shoppers. In Nordstrom’s signature department, ladies’ shoes, there must have been one hundred beautiful chairs and places on couches for trying on shoes. Only five were occupied. Usage was even lower in mens’ shoes, one chair of the maybe forty in all. How are prices? I checked two items: Nordstrom’s brand in men’s briefs and pinpoint Oxford dress shirts. Both were about the same as in the U.S. after taking into account the weak Canadian dollar.

My fascination, maybe fixation, in comparing U.S. retail to Canadian is foolish. We will always come up short. There are no shopping areas in Canada like Newbury Street in Boston, St. Armands Circle in Sarasota or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Even Canadian philanthropists are a measure of the difference between the two countries. Arthur Irving, whose family made most of their money in New Brunswick, has just donated $80 million to Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where his daughter graduated in 2010.

Imagine what a Canadian university could have done with $80 million. The current issue of Impact, the official publication of Western University, my alma mater, features a cover story on Stephen Jarislowsky who just donated $2 million for a chair in central banking. The other major donation in the same issue is Scotiabank’s $3 million for a digital banking lab. We’re really a lesser place when it comes to philanthropy, university endowments and a lot of other elements. And no amount of American retailing in our midst will change that.

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