Friday, 27 July 2012

Zellers' 79 year run in Winnipeg

Riverview Plaza

It was sad to hear that the Zellers name will soon disappear from Canada's retail landscape. Especially tough will be the closure of the Bay Downtown location, barely two years after bringing a large, national retailer back to the core.

Zellers, a Depression-era success story, has been around for 80 years and has a couple of Winnipeg connections.

Zellers in the late 1960s (Wpg Building Index)

The chain's roots go back to U.S. retailer Schulte-United. In 1928 they entered the Canadian market by buying out a four outlet, Ontario-based, junior department store chain owned by Walter P. Zeller. The following year they opened over a dozen stores under the
Schulte-United name in Eastern Canada and in June 1929 a single outlet in Winnipeg at 346 Portage Avenue.

September 29, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1931 the chain went bankrupt and Zeller, a
Schulte-United vice president at the time, bought out their Eastern assets and re-branded them Zeller's, (the apostrophe was dropped in the 1970s.) In 1933 the chain returned to Winnipeg and, thanks to a near standstill in new retail activity in the city during the Depression, were able to move back to the familiar space on the main floor and basement of 346 Portage.

Winnipeg's Zeller's store opened on September 30, 1933 under
manager J. R. Young who was transferred from Port William.

Zeller and Young, Sept 30, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

For Walter Zeller, Winnipeg was familiar ground. He lived here for a number of years around 1910, (it appears he was a bookkeeper for the Woolworth chain.) He married Nettie Evelyn Lewis in September 1913 at Holy Trinity Church on Donald Street.

During World War II Zeller dedicated himself to the war effort and worked in numerous war-related positions without salary. He was at times
executive assistant to War Services Minister Joseph Thorson, chair of the wartime Tourist Advisory Committee, chair of a subcommittee on economic development with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a director of the War Savings Committee.

Sadly, that war took one of his two sons in 1944.

October 1, 1941, Winnipeg Tribune

When the war was over Zeller turned his attention back to business. There were new locations and the expansion of old ones. In 1946 the Portage Avenue store was revamped and expanded to take over the top floor of the building.

Conscious of the need for Canadians to have quality, stable jobs to help rebuild the economy, he introduced a profit sharing scheme for full time employees in 1945, (executives were excluded from the plan.) It was a scheme based on the operating profit of the individual store that they worked at, the pre-tax net profit of the chain and years of service. In its first year, employees could earn up to $226 each, (about $3,000 in 2012 dollars.)

In 1955 Zeller stepped down as president of the company. When he died in August 1957 his retail empire had grown from 13 stores with 350 employees to 62 stores with 3,526 employees.

September 23, 1978, Winnipeg Free Press

The chain then went through a number of owners including W. T. Grant Co. of the U.S. and Fields Stores of Vancouver. Realizing the popularity of suburban, discount retail department stores, Winnipeg-based Hudson's Bay Company wanted Zellers for its retail portfolio. In August 1978 they began buying up the company's publicly held stock and by September had 51% control of the company. Within a couple of years they owned it outright.

In 1959 Zellers opened a second Winnipeg location at Polo Park Shopping Centre. In 1972 the downtown location closed but by then they had added Fort Richmond Plaza, Northdale Shopping Centre and Westwood Shopping Centre. In 1980, under HBC, locations were added at Northgate Plaza, Grant Park Plaza and Nairn at Lagimodiere Boulevard. The last store added was the Bay basement location, just over a block away from where their first Winnipeg store opened in 1933.

It appears that seven was the maximum number of Winnipeg Zellers stores at any one time. At the chain's peak in 1999 there were nearly 300 stores across the country.

The Bay Downtown

In 2011 HBC sold 189 Zellers stores to American retailer Target. Locally, that included Kildonan Place, Southdale, Grant Park and Polo Park, (plus Shoppers Mall in Brandon.) HBC retained
Northgate, Fort Richmond and the Bay Downtown.

In 2012 HBC announced that the remaining Zellers will close by March 2013, including the Bay and Northgate locations. That appears to leave the Fort Richmond store's fate undecided.

The Zellers Story HBC.com
A report to Canadians by W P Zeller Financial Post


Anonymous said...

Any idea what will happen to the store @ Portage & Memorial?

The View from Seven said...

I wonder where the 1980 Grant Park Zellers would have been located? Woolco was the mall's eastern anchor for about 30 years, followed by Wal-Mart and later Zellers. I'm sure Safeway has a long history as the western anchor.

I expect the future of the downtown Bay building will be a public issue in the year ahead, as Zellers was one of the last remaining hubs of activity (and cash flow) in an otherwise increasingly quiet department store.

Christian Cassidy said...

Not sure what will happen w/ the Bay Downtown. I was always moderately optimistic about it, especially since the addition of Zellers but now I am not so sure.

As for Grant Park, I looked back and it was a small Zellers that seems to have come about through takeovers. There was a Clark Gambles Discount Store inside that became Gambles then in 1970s Zellers bought Gambles. I assume it stuck around sort of like Kreskes did in Polo Park !

Anonymous said...

I wonder what will happen at the Zellers sites at Northgate and Fort Richmond?

John Dobbin said...

When Gambles was purchased, it became a Zellers and was there for many years. The Gambles cleared out stock in November of 1980.

Interestingly, Gambles was part of a Supreme Court hearing regarding Grant Park Plaza.

Grant park, built in 1962 had originally given Gambles an anchors sport. However, owners of Grant Park were having a hard time with tenants and got an additional anchor with Woolco. In 1969, it became an enclosed mall.

This is when it hit the fan with lawsuits.

For a time, there was Woolco, Gambles, Dominion and Safeway.

The Zellers stuck around for a lot of the 1980s but the size of the store was not ideal. I cannot remember the exact time it closed but the mall reconfigured at that time.

It reconfigured again in 1996 with the arrival of McNally and the departure of Walmart. Zellers then decamped from Forest Park mall..later Charleswood Shopping Centre.

In essence, it was revenge of the late Gambles. The lawsuit they lost over Woolco was strangely enough the same spot they placed their own store decades later.

Christian Cassidy said...

That's great, thanks. I barely remember Gambles as a kid. There was one in Northgate on McPhillips, where Zellers is now.

Anonymous said...

"Nairn at Lagimodiere Boulevard"

Nairn does not reach Lagimodiere. Correct location is Nairn & Panet.

Unknown said...

Yes it does, but only to Lagimodiere. Transcona side is Regent.