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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Defunct Discount Stores from Ames to Zellers

For those of you living in Canada like myself, you may have heard the news that American retail chain Target is planning on opening up at least two hundred stores in various locations right across the country over the next two years.  In fact, three stores in Ontario opened up their doors yesterday.  I remember watching the opening of one of the stores on last night’s six o’clock news, and it seemed to get a lot of attention.  It seemed as though one of the biggest complaints about the retail chain thus far here in Canada has to do with pricing.  Some consumers believe that the prices are a bit too expensive for their meager budgets.  I suppose time will tell what will happen as more stores open up across Canada.

Of course, some of you who have been faithful readers of this blog for almost two years might recall that I currently hold a day job in retail at what could be considered one of Target’s biggest competitors.  Lest you think that I am giving a rival chain free publicity, think again.  For one, I would likely end up getting a stern talking to if I were caught praising a rival chain of stores, and for another, I have not set foot inside of a Target location, so I cannot judge how good of a chain it is.  The closest city to me that will be getting a Target location is about an hour’s drive from where I am, and that store won’t be ready until at least summer.  I’ll probably check it out when the grand opening does take place just out of curiosity, as I’m sure the majority of my co-workers at my job will.

The reason why I am talking about Target moving up north to Canada is because for Target to have the ability to come into Canada, it means that another department store chain has closed up shop.

In this case, Target will be opening up shop in several former Zellers locations over the next year.  The few Zellers locations that are still open are currently having their “Going Out Of Business” sales, and by April 2013 (with the exception of three stores), Zellers will be nothing more than a name of the past.

And, the closure of several hundred Zellers stores all across Canada gave me the idea for today’s topic.  What if I did a spotlight on department stores and supermarkets that I remember going to as a child?  Department stores and supermarket chains that no longer exist?  And, what if I pepper each description of the now-defunct businesses with historical events and personal memories that I experienced when I paid each store a visit?  I thought it would be a great topic to talk about the stores of the past, and at the end, I’ll be asking for some audience participation.  No obligation though, despite my bolding of the words ‘audience participation’.  J

NOTE:  I realize that there are hundreds of department stores and supermarket chains that have shut their doors, but for the sake of this blog, I will only do spotlights on chains that I remember visiting.  But feel free to add your memories of other department stores and supermarkets of the past if I have not listed them here.

And, to begin, we’ll go in alphabetical order with a department store I visited several times as a child when my family would go cross-border shopping in the United States.

Founded: 1958
Defunct:  Fall 2002

It seems hard to believe now, but at one time, Ames was once the United States’ fourth largest retailer behind Walmart, Kmart, and Target.  The first Ames store was opened up in the community of Southbridge, Massachusetts in 1958 by brothers Milton and Irving Gilman.  The inspiration for the name “Ames” came purely by recycling – the brothers just used the signage of the former business that previously occupied the building, “Ames Worsted Textile Co.”

The company set up several locations strictly in the Northeastern United States, specifically in ruralised areas, offering up the promise of quality items at discounted prices to that sector of population so that they wouldn’t have to drive so far to get everyday household items needed.  By 1978, the company began to expand as a fast pace, taking over the former “Big N” chain, and ten years later, would acquire as many as four hundred more locations from Ames taking over the King’s Department Store chain, G.C. Murphy, and Zayre stores throughout the United States.

Unfortunately for Ames, this move also caused the company to file for bankruptcy in the early 1990s.  Of course, it wasn’t the inability to keep up with the expansion that was the sole factor.  Ames had a policy that allowed customers to extend their consumer credit with the store without any questions asked, and without doing a credit check!  This proved to be a big mistake on Ames’ part, because what eventually happened was that customers were defaulting on their debt payments, which took money out of Ames’ bottom line.  A total of 370 stores were closed during that period.

Amazingly, Ames navigated this bankruptcy quite well, and by the mid-1990s, the company bounced back and began making profits.  Unfortunately, the company had to file for bankruptcy protection a second time in the summer of 2001, and this time, the problems were so great that the company announced that the chain would be going out of business in late 2002.  The final Ames stores were left vacant by the holiday season of 2002.

PERSONAL MEMORY TIME:  Ames never came to Canada, but there was an Ames location in Ogdensburg, New York.  As a kid, I remember going there with my family, and ended up picking up some very cool toys.  I had my first taste of a Brach’s Gum Dinger Pop at Ames.  I bought my first Magic 8-Ball at Ames.  And, my parents bought me my all-time favourite Fisher-Price playset from Ames, the Fisher-Price Main Street Set!  I still can’t believe I remember all that!  I don’t remember exactly what happened to the old Ames either became a Price Chopper supermarket or a Dollar Tree location...I’m not sure, because I don’t know what part of the shopping plaza it was located in.

Founded: 1917
Defunct:  Summer 1992

The only former supermarket chain on this list, Steinberg’s was founded in the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1917 by Jewish-Hungarian immigrant, Ida Steinberg.  Her five sons (most notably Sam Steinberg) worked together to grow the business from a simple little storefront into one of Quebec’s first successful supermarket chains.  During the 1930s and 1940s, the chain would expand into New Brunswick and Ontario, and throughout the 1960s, Steinberg would be in charge of several businesses including Miracle Mart, Miracle Food Mart, Valdi, Pik-Nik, Le Quick, and Cardinal Distributors.

Steinberg’s ended up dropping the possessive “S” from its name in 1961, following the decision by Sam Steinberg to have all of his employees in Quebec to offer service in English AND French (something that in 2013 era Quebec would likely NOT happen in some areas of the province).  By 1977, Steinberg’s became Quebec’s largest supermarket chain.

Unfortunately Sam Steinberg passed away in 1978, and after his death, his children became involved in a nasty battle over the future of the company.  That marked the beginning of the end of the Steinberg’s empire.  By 1991, many of the Steinberg stores in Ontario had been sold to Loblaws, A&P, and Dominion, and by the summer of 1992, the once prosperous chain went belly-up.

PERSONAL MEMORY TIME:  Steinberg’s used to be a staple store at the local shopping mall back in the 1980s, and I have a couple of vague memories of the store.  One memory is that I remember always wanting to get a bottle of Steinberg’s orange soda (which at the time came in GLASS bottles).  And, another memory I have is riding the motorized rides parked outside of Steinberg’s that faced the lottery kiosk.  I think I must have played on those rides dozens of times by the time I was five!  Steinberg’s was taken over by Your Independent Grocer in the late 1980s, and currently at its former location are a Shoppers Drug Mart and Stitches Warehouse Outlet.

Founded:  1962
Defunct:  Spring 1994 (in Canada)

Woolco was first started up in Columbus, Ohio in 1962, and was a subsidiary of another long-running business (which I will talk about a little later).  At the time of its founding came the creation of several neighbourhoods in the outskirts of major cities known as “suburbia”, and Woolco was designed as a discount store that catered to suburban residents.  By 1966, twenty-seven stores had opened up (eighteen in the United States, nine in Canada), and with the company opening up thirty stores each year until the 1980s, is it any wonder how the company ended up having three hundred stores by the mid-1970s?

TRIVIA:  My town’s Woolco store was one of those built during the expansion, opening up its doors in the summer of 1973.

Now, the company ended up closing every single one of its Woolco locations in the year 1982...but in Canada, the company continued on for an additional few years until Walmart bought out the company in early 1994.  The majority of Woolco locations became Walmart stores, and many of the Woolco staff were transitioned easily into Walmart associates.

PERSONAL MEMORY TIME:  Well, aside from working at a business that at one time was a Woolco store...I have so many memories of Woolco that I don’t think I can even list them all.  Among some of the Woolco memories I had as a kid.

-          Walking through the store in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume after coming in second at the mall’s Halloween costume contest.

-          Using the layaway counter for the first time at the age of nine to purchase my Nintendo (which took me five months to save up the money for, by the way!)

-          Having both an older sister and an aunt working at Woolco.

-          Having breakfast with Santa Claus one year at the “Red Grille”, Woolco’s own restaurant (which had some fantastic food, by the way).

-          The chaotic events known as $1.44 Mondays.

-          My parents purchasing a really ugly, annoying, noisy Santa Claus Christmas centerpiece that had Santa playing the drums to “Jingle Bells”...which they STILL HAVE...which I have tried unsuccessfully to silence forever for twenty-six Christmases and counting...

And, since I brought up Woolco, why don’t I talk about Woolco’s parent company?

Founded:  July 18, 1879
Defunct:  Summer 1997

Ah, Woolworth’s, how I miss you so...

The Woolworth’s chain was once known as the F.W. Woolworth Company when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened up the first successful location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1879 (after a failed attempt in Utica, New York some six months prior).  Marketed as a Great Five Cent Store, Woolworth’s quickly became successful under the leadership of F.W. and his brother, Charles Sumner “Sum” Woolworth.  After F.W.’s death in 1919, Sum took over the reins of the company and served as Chairman of the company, seeing through four different company presidents until his own passing in January 1947.  By 1979, when the company turned one hundred years old, it was considered to be the largest department store chain in the world, with several hundred locations in several different countries of the world.  And, one could argue that Woolworth’s was the inspiration behind the modern day shopping plaza food court, as their decision to incorporate lunch counters at every location helped bring customers in.

TRIVIA:  In February 1960, a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina became the site of civil rights activism when four black youths were refused service simply because of the color of their skin.  This prompted six months of sit-ins and boycotts, which ended up being one of the key events towards the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  A portion of that lunch counter now sits in the Smithsonian Institute.

Woolworth’s eventually saw a decline following the closure of its Woolco brand in the United States, as well as being associated with a deadly 1979 fire at one of its stores in Manchester, England.  By 1997, the Woolworth’s name was but a memory in North America.

PERSONAL MEMORY TIME:  Of all the stores on this list, I miss Woolworth’s the most.  When I was a really young kid (and I was off from school) my mom and I would go downtown to pay bills every second Thursday, and she would always set aside just enough money to treat me to a burger and Coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, as well as choosing one toy from the toy section if I was good.  As long as I live, I’ll never forget how much fun those times were.  I’d usually pick out either a colouring book and “Woolworth brand” crayons, or a giant ball with a Wuzzle or a Smurf on them!

(What can I was the 1980s!)

I have one embarrassing moment too.  My sister took me out to lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter one summer (I think it was just before Woolworth’s shut down), and somehow I squirted ketchup all over my brand new purple T-shirt.  I was very upset because I didn’t want anyone to come to the conclusion that I was a sloppy eater, so we ended up purchasing some stickers from the craft department and I stuck a sticker over the stain...because wearing a scratch and sniff citrus sticker was somehow less embarrassing than a ketchup stain... J

And, this leads to the final store...the one where this blog began.

Founded: 1931
Defunct:  Spring 2013*

(*As of April 2013, there will only be three Zellers locations still open)

When Zellers was founded in 1931 in Southern Ontario, founder Walter P. Zeller had intended for the chain to cater towards “thrifty Canadians”.  The first Zellers locations were opened up in fourteen former Schulte-United stores.  By 1953, the company had expanded into Atlantic Canada, operating 72 stores and employing almost four thousand people.

In 1975, Zellers adopted the logo which it would continue using until 2013, and by 1976, it was making annual sales of over $400 million from its 155 stores located across Canada.  In June 1978, Zellers made a bid to try and purchase the Hudson’s Bay Company, but instead was purchased BY Hudson’s Bay Company, as executives were impressed by Zellers’ profitability.  The HBC took over all Zellers locations by 1981.

Now, some people might state that the purchase of the chain by HBC sealed its fate, but Zellers actually did fairly well leading up into the 1990s.  I would imagine that when Walmart moved into Canada in 1994, it offered some major competition for Zellers at first, but in some communities, Zellers seemed to thrive.

By 2011, the chain was struggling, and in January, Target bought the lease agreements of 220 Zellers locations in the goal of transforming them into Target stores.  The Zellers stores that were not bought out by Target either became Walmart stores, or closed up shop entirely.  In the case of the Zellers store in my hometown, there’s no plans for it to become a Target, so for now, its future is uncertain.  For all I know, they may end up bulldozing the whole store.  For now, the store is selling off whatever inventory they have left for its closure at the end of the month.

PERSONAL MEMORY TIME:  I’ll readily admit that I don’t have a whole lot of memories regarding Zellers because my family more or less shopped at Woolco.  But I do remember a few things.  I remember eating at the Skillet restaurant, which was all right (not NEARLY as good as the Red Grille), and I also remember getting a teddy bear from Zellers (Zellers mascot was the Zeddy Bear).  Other than that, I don’t have too much to say.  I will attest though that the Zellers location at the Billings Bridge Shopping Plaza in Ottawa was twice as busy as the location in my own area though.

And, that’s my look back on defunct and closing department store and supermarket chains.  Now I turn the spotlight on all of you.

BONUS QUESTION:  What are some of your favourite former department stores/supermarkets?  And, what memories do you have of these places?  I’m interested in hearing some of your stories!

1 comment:

  1. As of today, you can add Target to the list--leaving the country after only a couple of years. Zeller's' salvation is now giving up the ghost, itself. This put me in mind of other stores we knew as younger folk: Eaton's, Simpson's (and Simpson-Sears), K-Mart, Safeway, A&P, Dominion, Tamblyn Drug...