The trouble with Canadian retailing

On a trip to the U.S. in March 1994, I stopped at the Wal-Mart store in Meadville, Pa. to inspect the outfit that was coming to Canada after buying 120 Woolco stores from Woolworth Canada. Inside the door, a cheerful employee greeted me and offered a shopping cart. The place was well lit, aisles were wide, stock neatly displayed. Some prices were as much as half off. An employee near me carrying what looked like a Flash Gordon ray gun zapped a product barcode with a laser beam. With little prompting, she proudly showed me how the readout gave her the number of items on the shelf, how many the shelf could hold, how many were out back, and what was coming from the supplier. She wasn’t just stocking shelves: she could interpret customer demand and had the power to order.

Next, I inspected one of those plug-in timers that operates lights when you’re away. A voice at my elbow said: “I’ve got one of those. Do you know how it works? You can turn the light off and on both in the morning and at night.” The employee didn’t ask whether I wanted to buy one, just made a neighbourly comment when she saw I was interested and kept on walking. Of course, I bought it.

Contrast that with my first and last visit to a Hy & Zel’s in Dixie Mall west of Toronto shortly afterwards. The discount store had but two carts inside the door, one of them badly damaged. Customers couldn’t take carts outside so the problem wasn’t errant vehicles; the store simply didn’t have enough. The place was grungy; floor staff were so few and far between they might as well have been missing persons on milk containers. The trouble with Canadian retailing was Canadian retailing.

During the 1990s alone, three dozen America retailers invaded the Canadian retail landscape. Some of them included The Gap, Banana Republic, Business Depot, Costco, Pet Mart, Starbucks, and Talbots. The trouble persists. I went past Yorkdale the other day, the graveyard of Canadian department stores. When the mall opened in the 1960s it featured Eaton’s and Simpsons, both gone. Today, the Hudson’s Bay store remains open, but who knows for how long. They’ve closed flagship locations in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal as well as my local at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto. Canadian department stores can’t seem to make a go of it. I’d be prepared – just this once mind you – to welcome an American interloper, if it were a Dillard’s or Bloomingdale’s. Build it and I will come.

 

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