Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

A merger of two Torontoist posts, one written when Target bought a pile of Zellers leases (published January 13, 2011) and one when Target Canada called it quits (published January 23, 2015), along with a few extras tossed in.

Let’s begin with the expectations some people had when Target announced it was coming to Canada…

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some preferred, Tar-zhay) drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

Torontonians didn’t bite, as its first location closed within months. That first store was ignored in the PR for Zellers’ return to the city in March 1950. “Even if many Torontonians hear the news at first with indifference,” Globe and Mailbusiness columnist Wellington Jeffers wrote, “I am convinced that later on they will know it is something of an event that Zeller’s Ltd will this year open a Zeller store on Bloor Street.”

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

The branch at 24 Bloor Street West (now the site of the Holt Renfrew Centre) was hailed by City officials as the beachhead for larger stores moving onto Bloor between Yonge and Bay.

Zellers quickly took advantage of the explosive growth in suburban shopping, placing stores in pioneering shopping centres like Golden Mile Plaza and Lawrence Plaza. The stores gradually evolved into modern discount department stores, though unlike its competition (Kresge’s Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco chains), Zellers didn’t rebrand its larger locations.

Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers.

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

In August 1986 Zellers launched its Club Z customer loyalty program. Initial press reports depicted it as a computerized version of old “green stamp” schemes, complete with gift catalogue promising decent merchandise for a large number of points—a 28-inch colour TV could be yours for only 1.5 million Club Z points. Targeted consumers were women aged 25 to 55 who frequently shopped at Zellers for basic clothing and other staples for their families.

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

The following year, Zeddy debuted. In his early days, Zeddy taught kids to be safe via colouring books, and lent his assistance in finding missing children. Zeddy later upheld the “law of Toyland,” joining the likes of Batman and Robin in crusading for lower prices on kids’ goods. After being dumped in the woods in a humorous ad campaign in 2012, Zeddy became a mascot for Camp Trillium.

The influence of Target hovered over the chain from the 1990s onward, via revamped presentation in some stores, stocking common brands like Cherokee and Massimo, and periodic rumours the American discounter was about to take over. Yet model stores, as Canadian Business discovered at an Ajax location in 1996, could not escape complaints about messiness customers grumbled about for years:

Pieces of children’s clothing are strewn about the floor. The cosmetics counter is in hopeless disarray. A snorkel and mask are lying in the stationery section. A bucket of dirty water sits next to a mountain of tinned ham. Empty cardboard boxes and abandoned shopping carts block the aisles.There are rows of empty shelves in almost every department of the store. Some of the goodies bins around the checkout area sit empty—a cardinal sin in the retailing world, where impulse buying accounts for a significant percentage of sales. A female clerk swears loudly as she sets up a display. Another gives a visitor a sour look when he asks for directions to the washroom. Needless to say, this is not the ultimate shopping environment. And yet Zellers is counting on “model” outlets such as this to save it from oblivion.

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

To put it mildly, Target Canada didn’t live up to expectations. Its failure will probably be a case study in business textbooks for years to come. One side effect was a wave of nostalgia for Zellers, which left a void in the marketplace that is still being filled.

When Target announced its decision to pull the plug on its Canadian misadventure, it provoked a wave of nostalgia for the discount chain it supplanted. Memories and laments for Zellers made it a trending topic on social media, and the textbook case study of Target’s mistakes led people to forgive past complaints about the home of Club Z and Zeddy.

“Zellers, for most of its history, was quite simply the major discount store in the country,” retail expert Ed Strapagiel noted when Target purchased Zellers’ leases in Janaury 2011. ”It really was quite phenomenal—it didn’t necessarily offer the most fashionable items, but it had a reputation for good and sturdy clothes.”

Anyone with pangs of nostalgia, or wishing to have a last laugh on Target, can still shop at Zellers in Toronto, though the lone remaining store in the city at Kipling and Queensway is effectively a Hudson’s Bay outlet.

Sources: the September 1996 edition of Canadian Business; the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post; the February 2, 1950 and January 14, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 7, 1931, November 10, 1931. March 9, 1950, and August 10, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

It appears that Zellers will disappear (again) by the beginning of 2020, as its last two locations will be closing. 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Corner of Balmuto St. and Bloor St., looking north

Corner of Balmuto and Bloor, looking north, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 66, Item 21.

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

On the business side of the balance sheet, Mr. Zeller knows as much about the variety store business as any man in the business. On the personal side, he is forthright, hard-hitting and, when asked his opinion, gives it without reserve. What he has accomplished in a relatively short space of time implies a businessman of the “dynamo” type. He is all of that. And to back up his boundless supply of energy, is a knowledge of his own business and capabilities that commands respect.

The profile ended with this odd tidbit: “He has only two hobbies: business and Kiwanis.”

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

“County Fair” malls and plazas anchored by Zellers dotted the Canadian landscape during the 1970s. I wonder if the one closest to where I grew up (Leamington, now anchored by FreshCo) ever held a “stagnite” like the Georgetown location.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 22, 1903. Click on image for larger version.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

I considered including a brief history of Target in one of the original articles. These two ads show the birth of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s, out of which Target emerged as its discount division in 1962.

Vintage Toronto Ads: 2007’s Christmas Sampler

A batch of holiday-themed Vintage Toronto Ads columns from 2007.

Part One: Leaping into the Holiday Espirit

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2007.

Vintage Ad #412: The Esprit of Simpsons

Toronto Life, December 1984. Click on image for larger version.

The holiday shopping season has descended upon the city, along with an early blast of winter. This combination may lead shoppers to unconsciously purchase items to cure their winter blues, even if the calendar shows that fall has a few more weeks to go.

Today’s ad offers a prescription from Simpsons and Esprit to keep free-spirited souls in an ecstatic mood come February. A trip down to the historic Queen Street department store promised relief, with a checkout line standing in for a waiting room.

This cure for the midwinter blahs appears to have worked for our models, who discovered that the colourful zig-zag sweater patterns unlocked a yearning for childhood games. They called up the rest of the gang, found an empty studio, and played leapfrog, jump rope and dodgeball for several hours.

Part Two: Saturdays with Santa at Woolco

Originally published on Torontoist on December 11, 2007.

Vintage Ad #431: Breakfast with Santa at Woolco

Toronto Star, December 8, 1977.

A longtime staple of the holiday season is a special visit from jolly old St. Nick to the nearest shopping mall or department store. Kids relish the opportunity to tell Santa that they want the latest hot toy, peace on Earth or an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model air rifle, while retailers hope these gift lists translate into sales. If the establishment has hired their Santa carefully, kids will not need to purchase Santi-Wrap before sitting on the big elf’s lap.

The F.W. Woolworth Company entered the discount department store battlefield in 1962, the same year rival five-and-dimer S.S. Kresge launched K-Mart. As Woolworth’s had long operated traditional outlets in Canada, it wasn’t long before the new format was launched in Toronto. Known for promotions such as “$1.44 Days,” Woolco proved to have a longer life here than stateside, where all locations were shuttered by 1983. The chain had 160 locations by the time it was sold to Wal-Mart in 1994.

The Red Grille was Woolworth’s cafeteria concept, found in Woolco and larger Woolworth’s stores on both sides of the border. Torontoist remembers that many had wobbly, flip-down red seats kids loved to play with, usually while sipping a drink in a red-striped cup. The smell was distinct, fried food mixed with an undefined element. We’re not sure how Santa or store management would have handled children who were bad all year––maybe they weren’t allowed to grab a package of Peak Freen cookies at the cashier.

These cafeterias were the descendants of the lunch counters that occupied Woolworth’s and many of its competitors. Toronto’s last surviving example of a five-and-dime counter, located in a former Kresge at Coxwell and Gerrard, closed earlier this year.

Of the locations listed in today’s ad, four continue to operate as Wal-Mart stores (Agincourt Mall, Dufferin Mall, North Park Plaza and Square One), while the others have been converted to other retailers or demolished.

As for Woolworth’s, the last of its North American five-and-dime stores closed in 1997 when the company decided to concentrate on its mall-based specialty chains. Several name changes later, the company continues to operate under the corporate name of its largest subsidiary, Foot Locker.
Part Three: Give the Gift of Baseball

Originally published on Torontoist on December 18, 2007.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1977.

‘Tis the season for gift certificates. Whether you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what to give to an impossible recipient or selecting your loved one’s favourite store or service, the selection of certificates, cards and vouchers seems unlimited. More than a few local sports woke up on Christmas morning three decades ago to find one of today’s passes for the Blue Jays’ second campaign as a stocking stuffer.

The Jays finished their debut season in a familiar spot for expansion teams, last place in the American League East. Despite a record of 54 wins and 107 losses, over 1.7 million fans cheered for the team at Exhibition Stadium. Orioles castoff Bob Bailor led hitters with a .310 average, while Dave Lemanczyk led the pitching staff with 13 victories. Of the players who took the field that year, only pitcher Jim Clancy and catcher Ernie Whitt were still in Toronto uniforms when the Jays made their first trip to the playoffs in 1985.

That the team had a store in Commerce Court wasn’t a great surprise, as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was one of the original owners of the franchise, along with Labatt’s Breweries and Imperial Trust. The bank retained an ownership share until it sold its last interests when Rogers Communications bought the team in 2000.

Part Four: Seasons Greetings from CBC Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on December 25, 2007.

Vintage Ad #116  - Merry Christmas from CBC

Toronto Life, December 1975.

A short but sweet season’s greeting for you from some of CBC Toronto’s mid-1970s personalities. Dig those frames on young Hana Gartner! The passage of time has made it hard to determine if the “oh yeah” was part of the original ad or a sarcastic comment by a previous reader.

Halloween in Toronto, 1978

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Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Malabar’s, the costume people, have never been busier than they have during the past couple of weeks, and the reason may provide a dandy little summary of the times we’re in. These times, inarguably, are rotten. The dollar, the family, the nation, the Argos…everything’s falling apart. Hallowe’en, if we’ll let it, gives us a chance to get away from all that. To hide. Fantasize. Escape from reality. Turn into someone—or something—else. – Peter Gzowski, Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Talking to staff at Malabar, Gzowski discovered one of 1978’s most popular costumes was one that would be frowned upon for numerous reasons 40 years on: an Arab. “They want to rich,” noted Malabar’s Michael Schilders. “They could just put on a tea-towel, a rope and a tablecloth, but if they come to us they can have gold and silver cords and really looks as if they owned oil wells.”

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1978.

Also popular that year: masks of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, anything Vatican related (the year had gone through three popes) and nun’s habits, especially among pregnant customers. Store staff noted that interest in costumes went up when the economy tumbled (the Great Depression had been especially good for rentals).

Best costume suggestion in the column: “the Blob Who Ate Etobicoke.”

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Toronto Star, October 25, 1978.

Over in the Globe and Mail, columnist Bruce West felt Halloween was going downhill, partly because nobody had the chance to tip over outhouses:

It is my personal theory that Hallowe’en started its downhill trend not long after the advent of inside plumbing brought about the demise of the outdoor privy. There was a time, I’ll have you know, when—particularly in the more rural areas—the humble outhouse was almost as import a symbol of Hallowe’en as the ghastly smile of a flickering pumpkin or even a witch flying by on a broom.

No one was really considered to have really won his spurs as a graduate Hallowe’en prankster until he had at least assisted in the overturning of one outhouse. The owners of these conveniences usually took this annual ordeal in fairly good humour—with the notable exception of one deceitful rascal in my home town who gained the undying hostility of a group of privy-tippers by craftily shifting back his outhouse a few feet, in the early hours of Hallowe’en, in such away that the raiding party, while later approaching their target in the deep darkness, suddenly encountered some mighty poor footing.

The scariest element of modern-day Halloween, according to West, came “when you are confronted by the horrible giant prices of a dwarf bag of hand-out chocolate bars or trick-or-treat apples.”

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Globe and Mail, November 1, 1978.

One candy kids wouldn’t get their hands on was Clikkers tobacco-flavoured gum. The Consumers Association of Canada (CAC) successfully lobbied Zellers to remove the product, which was offered as a seasonal special at some locations. Though it didn’t actually contain tobacco or nicotine, the CAC wondered what the chances were that “children who acquire a taste for tobacco-flavoured gum will be encouraged to try tobacco itself?” An official from Zellers’ head office in Montreal admitted that “based on the calls we’ve had, it just isn’t worth it.” Aspiring smokers had to settle for Popeye candy cigs.

Two Toronto-based animators, John Leach (later known as Jonathan Rogers) and Jean Rankin, created one of the season’s hottest new animated specials. Here’s how The Canadian magazine introduced Witch’s Night Out:

Winnifred, bless her black lace bloomers, is not your average witch. A grande dame with the Seventies style of a stand-up comic, a funky fairy godmother temporarily fallen on hard times, she worries because work isn’t coming in the way it used to; nobody seems to believe in magic anymore. But she still has class, wears expensive underwear, and puts on her makeup every morning. And she can make wishes come true.

Winnifred was named after Leach’s mother, who remarked “Fame at last!” The character was partly inspired by Gilda Radner, who provided her voice (other voices included Catherine O’Hara and Fiona Reid). The cartoon was originally intended for CBC, who sat on it for nearly a year before finally rejecting it. It ended up on NBC, where Radner was starring on Saturday Night Live.

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If you were running dry on costume ideas, you could always check the Star’s “Starship” page for inspiration via its ongoing “Costumes of the World” series. Who knows how many little fishermen from Flanders ran around the streets of Toronto! October 28, 1978.

Halloween night the Toronto tradition of egging drag performers attending balls on Yonge Street continued, which resulted in 90 arrests. “Most of the arrests,” the Star reported, “were for causing a disturbance, drunkenness and breach of the peace.” It was also noted that “one marijuana charge was laid.” Two years later, a crackdown by police and the community began winding down the hate-tinged mayhem.

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Art Eggleton would top the polls in Ward 4, which covered Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Italy. Two years later, he was mayor. Toronto Star, November 1, 1978.

Halloween 1978 also coincided with the municipal election campaign, resulting in some election sign pranks. A Globe and Mail editorial observed that householders were placed “in the position of being promised goodies as they hand goodies over. The trick is to tell the real hobgoblins from those in disguise and to beware of brochures with pins in them.”

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Toronto Star, October 26, 1978.

Fashion then, costumes now: the image above offers a sampling of the outfits one could put together from goods available at the 1978 edition of a long-running Toronto tradition, the Hadassah-WIZO Bazaar, which was promoted throughout the week of Halloween. Held on November 1 at the CNE’s Automotive Building, it was expected to draw 60,000 people looking to buy everything from high fashion to cantaloupe preserves.

Additional material from the October 28, 1978 edition of the Canadian; the October 27, 1978, October 30, 1978, October 31, 1978, and November 1, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the October 31, 1978 and November 1, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Trick or Treat or EXTERMINATE!

Originally published on Torontoist on October 21, 2012.

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The Telegram, September 22, 1971.

Hey, parents: are you looking for a last-minute costume for your toddler that doesn’t involve dressing him or her up as a member of the plant or animal kingdoms? If you have access to a time machine, set your coordinates for 1971 and the closest Towers discount department store. While thrifty shoppers of the day saw a “‘Baby Gir’ unimolded walker” as a cheap aid for speeding their child’s shift from four limbs to two legs, you will recognize its untapped potential as a kid-friendly Dalek costume.

Once you’ve zipped back to 2012, carefully peel off the nursery decals and spray-paint the walker grey. Paste on more circular objects if time permits. Glue a plunger on, or let your child your hold on to it like a rattle. The kid will love rolling around indoors or out, yelling “EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!” in the cutest robotic voice ever.

It’s unlikely Torontonians would have conceived of a costume like this back in 1971, because Doctor Who hadn’t had much exposure in Canada then. CBC ran William Hartnell’s first five serials, including the Daleks’ debut, in early 1965. In September 1966, the first of two movies starring Peter Cushing as a human doctor (alongside multicoloured Daleks), hit local theatres. Not until TVOntario picked up the series in 1976 did Who air for an extended period of time in Toronto.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A G.E.M. of a Store

Originally published on Torontoist on August 17, 2010.

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The Telegram, October 12, 1961.

As the wordier second page of today’s ad boasted to this smiling nuclear family:

Starting at 4 p.m. tomorrow, the pay cheques of thousands of government employees will suddenly go further! Everything from furniture to fashions…gasoline to groceries will be priced for LESS as the opening of G.E.M. signals the start of a merchandising revolution in Canada!…a store so different in concept that it is years ahead of its time in the Dominion.

A G.E.M. membership cost two dollars and was open to active and retired members of any level of government, the military, educational institutions, businesses with government contracts, and non-profit organizations. Besides the services mentioned above, ailing members could have purchased their medical subscriptions inside the store from concessionaire Koffler Drugs, which was the forerunner of Shoppers Drug Mart.

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The Telegram, October 12, 1961.

G.E.M. (which, depending on the source, stood for Government Employees Mart or Government Employees Mutual) was one of a number of discount department stores with similar names (such as G.E.X. and Gemco) launched during the 1950s that limited access to bargains galore to government employees. According to the January 1964 issue of The Rotarian, the appeal of these chains was low prices coupled with snob appeal that instilled in store members “a feeling of belonging to something unusual or unique…a sort of country club for shoppers,” which was especially appealing for eligible members on fixed incomes. By 1964, over a million consumers in the United States and Canada carried G.E.M. membership cards. A crowded field caused many of these chains to ease their membership requirements or drop them entirely so that more plebeians could empty their wallets—ads for G.E.M. from the early 1970s make no mention of any restrictions for meriting a card.

As the ’70s wore on, the G.E.M. store was joined by other tenants at 7171 Yonge Street, including an Eaton’s bargain outlet and a Safeway grocery store. Judging from references from its neighbours in newspaper ads, it appears to have closed by 1977. The site is currently occupied by Galleria Supermarket, though signs on the property indicate the future includes condo towers.

UPDATE

The former G.E.M. property was torn down and replaced by the World on Yonge complex.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Honest Ed’s Smells Out Bargains For You!

Originally published on Torontoist on July 17, 2007.

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“Honest Ed” Mirvish was many things—successful merchant, theatrical impressario, civic booster. For almost as long as his store at Bloor and Bathurst has operated, he also brought smiles to the faces of advertising bean counters at local newspapers.

Large-scale discount stores gained popularity in the 1950s, as post-war shoppers looked for economical ways to support their families and new lifestyles. First came the local store, often an outgrowth of a pre-existing department store, dry goods seller or grocer. 1962 was the turning point, as K-Mart, Kohl’s, Meijer, Target, Wal-Mart and Woolco all opened their first large-scale locations, pitching items from popcorn to parakeets. In Ontario, Steinberg’s (later Miracle Mart), Towers and Zellers gained a foothold in malls and plazas, while K-Mart and Woolco quickly ventured across the border.
The competition for newspaper space among discounters was fierce, as copies of the Star and Telegram from this period also feature large ads for Steinberg’s, Towers and Rite-Way. Honest Ed’s ads were blockier than the competition, with more featured products and no line-drawn/clip art fashion models.

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Since the main ad doesn’t feature any of the store’s trademark jokes (though the logo vaguely resembles the early human-filled masthead used by Mad magazine), here are banners from their other ads that week. These included deals on Geritol ($1.67/bottle), pellet guns ($3.55 each; 59 cents for ammo), herring (three tins for 31 cents) and wading pools ($7.99).

Sources: Toronto Telegram, July 13, 1967 (main ad), Toronto Telegram, July 15, 1967, and Toronto Daily Star, July 20, 1967 (banners).

Past Pieces of Toronto: Towers Department Stores

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally published on June 3, 2012.

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Toronto Star, November 16, 1960.

As the 1960s dawned, the discount department store heralded a new era of shopping. While Toronto had been home to stores such as Honest Ed’s for some time, the new breed of bargain emporiums were large, suburban sites which promised low prices, self-service and plenty of parking. Two years before future industry giants K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Woolco opened their first stores in the United States, Towers brought Metro Toronto consumers a taste of the future of retail.

Launched as the Canadian division of U.S.-based Towers Marts International, the chain’s plan was to erect stores, sell them to recover the capital costs, then lease them back. Concessionaires rented space inside each store to operate individual departments—one merchant ran men’s clothing, for example, while another ran the pharmacy. The initial 14 concessionaires, including familiar names like Coles books, signed a one-year deal, with the cost of the lease afterwards determined by their sales volume. By coming together under one roof, everyone saved money by using common cashiers, bags and fixtures.

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Toronto Star, November 15, 1960.

After six weeks of construction, the first Towers store opened at Lawrence Avenue East and Midland Avenue in Scarborough on November 17, 1960. An ad printed in the Star two days earlier depicted a child clad only in a rain barrel declaring “I’m not buying another thing” until the doors opened. The ad promised shoppers “bargains in sufficient quantities to fill your needs,” “forty-eight self-service, pressure-free departments on one floor to fill every need for all the family,” and “acres of free parking.” The festivities included the crowning of Mrs. Canada, who represented “the nation’s happiest housewife,” or at least the happiest homemaker to shop at Towers.

More gimmicky touches were used when Towers opened its third store on Dundas Street West between Bloor and Roncesvalles in June 1962. The first 1,000 customers could spend money to get more money—in this case, silver dollars for 80 cents. Seven sets of triplets, ranging in age from 3 to 34, were on hand to perform duties that including modelling the chain’s latest fashions and burying a time capsule intended to be left untouched until 2062.

Whether Towers would survive one more year, let alone 100, was a reasonable question. Messy relationships with its concessionaires, an inability to sell properties as fast as they were built, and a split with its American parent led to Towers falling into receivership in March 1963. During a creditors meeting at the King Edward Hotel that month, the receiver noted that untangling Towers’ affairs was “the most complicated matter I’ve ever been connected with” thanks to numerous unfavourable agreements it had made. Sales weren’t helped whenever customers unhappy with one concessionaire’s products said to heck with the rest of them and never set foot in Towers again.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1980.

The ultimate solution to the company’s problems was a gradual acquisition by grocer Oshawa Wholesale (later known as Oshawa Group) between 1965 and 1967. The chain’s numbers were boosted when Oshawa converted its Rite-Way discount stores to the Towers banner. The concessionaire model was phased as leases expired. Many stores built thereafter were paired with a Food City supermarket. Apart from some bumpiness in the mid-1970s, the chain became profitable and opened stores around Toronto in spots like the Galleria on Dupont Street.

Despite appearances in shows like Degrassi Junior High, Towers’ modest store count made it an attractive proposition for a sell-off as the 1990s loomed and Oshawa Group concentrated on its food and drug businesses. A bidding war erupted between the Hudson’s Bay Company and Woolworths for the 51-store chain, with HBC emerging the victor in October 1990. Over the next year, most of the stores were converted into Zellers locations. Figuring out where Towers locations were in Toronto without a store list isn’t too difficult: the tell-tale signs are malls and plazas where Zellers was/is located in close proximity to a FreshCo/Price Chopper/Sobeys grocery store.

Additional material from the September 9, 1960, November 15, 1960, November 16, 1960, June 14, 1962, April 1, 1963, and September 11, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The first time I wrote about Towers was the following installment of “Vintage Toronto Ads” originally published on Torontoist on October 30, 2007:

Vintage Ad #370: The Devil's Polyester (or Satan's Slacks)

Toronto Star, October 2, 1972.

With Halloween almost upon us, the mind turns to the dark side. Though today’s ad seems innocent enough on the surface, its evil intentions are evident from its most prominently displayed sale price. While humans usually sell their soul to demons for wealth, power or self-sacrifice, all your eternal fate will earn you at Towers is a pair of cheap polyester pants.

Halloween items were likely among the products on sale when Towers opened their Galleria location in the fall of 1972. The mall site was previously home to the Dominion Radiator Company. An essay on the industrial life of Dupont Streetreferred to the heating manufacturer’s replacement as “soulless,” so perhaps devilish dealings were afoot beyond these pants.

Towers was one of Canada’s earliest discount department store chains. After being purchased by Oshawa Group in 1967, several locations included or were built next to their grocery (Food City) and drug (Kent) stores. The chain had 51 stores across Ontario, the Maritimes and Quebec (as Bonimart) by the time it was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1990. Within a few months most locations, including the Galleria, were converted to Zellers stores.

Other than the price, the main eye-catching element is the artwork. The legs are so spindly that the “B” model snapped in two after attempting to stand straight.