The End of an Era: The Devolution of Canadian Retail

Image of Jeff in Zellers

In January 2011, Minneapolis-based Target announced that it had purchased the store leases of Canadian discount retail chain Zellers for $1.8 billion. As a consequence of the acquisition, and Target's impending move into the Canadian market, the Zellers chain has been slowly vanishing from the Canadian retail landscape. Target stores are scheduled to replace 100 to 150 of the 220 Zellers locations in 2013 and 2014.

Many of the Zellers locations contained, within them, full service diner-style restaurants which offered up a wide variety of affordable fare from a simple menu which included daily specials, kid's value meals and senior selections. The Zellers chain was the last of the department store chains to feature their own in-store restaurants; a characteristic commonplace in the retail industry in an era seemingly gone the way of the dodo.

The recent Target acquisition is reminiscent of Wal-Mart's move to Canada back in 1994 when the U.S.-based retail giant purchased Woolco from the F.W. Woolworth Company. Most of the Woolco stores, like Zellers, also had in-store restaurants called The Red Grille where shoppers could order up basic diner-style meals at reasonable prices.

In my view, the demise of the in-store restaurant, managed by the department store itself, represents more than just the end of an era; it represents "a major devolution of the retail industry in Canada". Wal-Martians, seemingly a consequence of some sort of exclusive business arrangement with the McDonald's chain, are able to wash down a heat-lamp maintained Big Mac and sodium-enriched fries with a super-sized soft drink. (If the City of Ottawa used half the salt on area sidewalks as the guy salting the fries at McDonald's did, there'd be far fewer sprained ankles this winter.) I'm not a nutritionist, and I'm certainly not a health freak, but I'm thinking that a grilled cheese sandwich with soup of the day and a glass of chocolate milk at the former Woolco or Zellers lunch counters is a far healthier choice than what Wal-Mart's charge, McVomit, has to offer.

This weekend the restaurant in Zellers at Billings Bridge Plaza served its last meal. Naturally, as a long-time patron, I visited my haunt for the last time to enjoy my favourite menu item: the Western Denver sandwich with fries, gravy and a coffee. It also afforded me the opportunity to extend my very best wishes to the staff who have served me time and time again for the past 15 years. It truly does signify the end of an era and it certainly will influence where I take my retail business. Needless to say, my visits to Wal-Mart are as brief as they are infrequent and you'll certainly never find me parked on a plastic chair at a Wal-Mart Rockin' Ronny's choking back gruel off a plastic spork served on cardboard and styrofoam.

I suppose I'll have to wait and see what Target has to offer the Canadian consumer before I pass final judgement. But if the rumour that Target stores will be home to the Starbucks chain is true, they'd better hope their products and pricing are sufficient to lure me into their stores. There is one thing, however, I can say a priori with complete and utter certainty: the presence of a Starbucks isn't going to enhance my "shopping experience. "Sorry dudes... standing in a Starbucks' queue and waiting to order a coffee by spewing out a few Spanish words isn't cosmopolitan. You wanna impress me? Have Juan Valdez and his fucking donkey serving the coffee instead por favor."

Submitted by Jeff Dubois, 18 December 2012