Zellers Daze – gone but not forgotten
Ten years ago Lindsay lost what has now become a store steeped in nostalgia
Slogans such as “Where the lowest price is the law,” “Dollar Daze,” and “Shopping anywhere else is pointless,” bring back waves of nostalgia for shoppers of the discount department store Zellers. Many still harbour fond memories of exclusive brands, ordering from the Club Z catalogue, or breakfast at the Skillet Restaurant.
Around the Kawarthas, chance meetings between former coworkers often include a cheerful “hello” and sometimes a hug, says Phyllis Carpentier. “Sometimes I’m amazed that we can carry on a conversation as if it were only yesterday when we last saw each other.”
Carpentier started and ended her 20 years with Zellers at the Lindsay location. She appreciates the opportunity her years with the company provided her to collect life-long friends from both the staff and customers.
Memories carry a strong sense of family for many who worked for the chain, as proven by the continued activity of Facebook groups like If You Ever Worked at Zellers. Even as Lindsay now reaches the 10-year anniversary of the closing of their store, several groups of local residents still gather to share coffee or lunch.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Zellers was established in London, Ontario in 1931 before it was bought by Hudson’s Bay Company in 1978. At the chain’s peak in 1999, there were 350 Zellers stores across Canada. (Currently there are 406 Walmarts in Canada.)
It was mainly pressure from Walmart that pushed Zellers into the point of no return, starting in about 1994, as the New York Times notes, when the U.S. retailing giant entered the Canadian market by buying up about 100 Woolco locations.
Walmart had a more formidable supply chain, given it served the U.S. market, so it could be more competitive on price and get a larger variety of options.
Back in Lindsay, the threat of Walmart felt like nothing more than a distant rumour for staff and customers during the early 1990s. The store’s high-volume sales provided, perhaps a false sense of security even while a lack of sufficient floor space provided constant challenges.
Zellers in Lindsay appeared at least on a local level to be well positioned to compete when it completed what would be its final major store renovation in 1998. The renovation was quickly followed by the addition of a major home fashions department and new photo lab. The photo lab became an instant success enjoying three upgrades in equipment and becoming a source of recognition and pride at a district level.
In the thick of the fight to survive in the retail market, one district manager told senior floor staff at the Lindsay Zellers that they had higher standards for the store than head office.
SENSE OF FAMILY
Rob Braniff, a familiar face at the Lindsay location for many years, believes that sense of family comes from the retailer’s roots. “Many of the Zellers began as downtown stores. As the company followed what was the trend back then and moved into the malls, their staff brought with them that close-knit culture of a small store.” Such small store practices as management handing out birthday cards to their staff survived into the early 1990s in Lindsay.
From Christmas 1942 until the 1990s, Zellers circulated a staff newsletter called the Zellers Forum. Along with business updates, the newsletter featured personnel news, staff stories, photos and store events.
“Zellers always had something to celebrate, whether it was a toy launch, celebrity visit or a staff milestone,” says Shelley Collins, who started as a co-op student and put in 32 years with the company. But in keeping with that close-knit culture, all those celebrations were not strictly business-related. The store’s lunch and meeting rooms saw their share of wedding and baby showers, as the staff gathered to share milestones in their personal lives as well.
“There was such great camaraderie,” says Donna Hess. “But there were, of course, challenges.”
Gail Leuty vividly remembers the day a trailer load of pool noodles arrived at the store instead of the order of twelve or so boxes she was expecting. To this day she still cannot believe the manager was not more upset and is quite certain it cost more to transfer the extra stock to
other stores than Zellers made from the sale of them. While Leuty and some of her former co-workers can laugh about it now, it was difficult to see the humour in the situation at the time.
After 32 years with Zellers, Braniff knows about facing challenges, but sometimes a career in retail requires a good sense of humour. He recalls a challenge presented during inventory, back when the store still carried live pets. How does a staff member go about counting different sized fish swimming in an aquarium? Braniff jokingly suggested cutting a small, medium and large hole in a piece of cardboard to place in the aquarium and counting the fish as they swam through the holes.
Fish were not the only animals to present challenges for the staff over the years. Andrea Shumsky, who spent a couple of years working at Zellers herself, remembers her husband Monty Wiegand telling her about the stray cat he found eating barbecued potato chips in the stockroom. It took a couple tries to not only capture, but hold on to this feline trespasser. “Poor baby was hissing, he was so scared,” Shumsky says of the first time she saw the cat. While some staff members questioned her decision, Shumsky adopted Stocky the stockroom cat. He became a cherished member of her family, but he never lost his taste for barbecued potato chips.
Collins notes that while she misses her Zellers family and the fun they always had, she believes the store closing affected customers, like the seniors who walked the mall each morning, as much as the staff.
When serving the public, ‘Everything from A to Z’ came to include a few humorous moments along with the challenges. Looking back, the moments that seem to stand out in memory were often the last customer on Christmas Eve, Braniff notes. Perhaps because the staff were eager to close up and get home to their own families.
There was even a customer paying for last-minute shopping with his Christmas bonus, which he received in the form of a thousand-dollar bill. None of the staff on duty had seen a thousand-dollar bill, much less knew how to verify the bill’s authenticity. Luckily, the personal connection of one staff member with the police department led to an officer dropping by to check the bill for the store staff. (Both the $1,000 bill and the $500 bill have been discontinued in Canada. The $100 note is the largest.)
On another Christmas Eve, a shopper accidentally locked her keys in her vehicle. Staff set about quickly searching the store for anything that could be used as a tool to help the customer. Out in the parking lot it was discovered the shopper was driving a hatchback, and while the doors were locked the hatch was not. Not so much a crisis after all.
The day the news came, the staff on duty were called into the stockroom to hear that their store’s closing date had been set. With the arrival of liquidation managers’ morale dropped and the atmosphere in the store became unsettled. The customers were upset and the staff grew stressed as an era in Lindsay retail ended.
Hudson’s Bay Co. recently announced that the Zellers brand is not quite dead though, as it gets ready to debut a new e-commerce website and open some Zellers outlets within HBC stores in major Canadian cities. It will also offer a “digital-first shopping journey that taps into the nostalgia of the brand,” according to a media release.
Perhaps the chain is just facing another challenge and the final chapter has yet to be written for this truly Canadian retailer