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Friday, 27 July 2012

Zellers and its 79-year run in Winnipeg

© 2012, Christian Cassidy
Riverview Plaza

It is 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 the national retailer returned to the core.

Zellers was a Depression-era success story that has been around for 80 years and its founder, Walter Zeller, has Winnipeg roots.

Here's a look back at the chain's 79-year run in Winnipeg.

Zellers in the 1960s (Wpg Building Index)

Zellers' roots go back to U.S. retailer called  Schulte-United. It entered the Canadian market in 1928 after buying out a four outlet, Ontario-based junior department store chain owned by Walter P. Zeller.

The following year, over a dozen stores opened under the
Schulte-United name in Eastern Canada and in June 1929 a single outlet opened in Winnipeg at 346 Portage Avenue.

September 29, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

The chain went bankrupt due to the Depression in 1931 and Zeller, who had become a
Schulte-United vice president at their headquarters in Montreal, bought out their Eastern assets and re-branded them Zellers, (the apostrophe in the name came and went over the years and was finally dropped in the 1970s.)

With around a dozen stores in Ontario, Quebec, and St. John NB, Zellers turned its attention to Winnipeg.

Schulte-United closed its doors at 346 Portage Avenue, the space was briefly home to another store called Mason and Risch that also closed and the building was mostly empty. This allowed Zellers to take out a long-term lease for the basement and main floor. The upper floor had a couple of smaller tenants, including a hair salon.

The man chosen to manage the store was J. R. Young of the Fort William location. He told the Tribune that while Zellers was a national chain, each store could "cater to local conditions". In Winnipeg's case, that meant selling ladies' ready-to-wear, millinery, hosiery and accessories as well as infants/childrens wear, and "household necessities".

Zellers took out a $3,000 building permit to do some alterations the the building's interior and it opened to the public on September 30, 1933.

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

Winnipeg was familiar ground for Walter Zeller as he lived here for a number of years around 1910. He first appears in street directories in as a clerk at David Corneille Co., manufacturing agents, located in the Bon Accord/Mitchell Fabric Block.
By 1913, he was the assistant manager of Woolworths on Portage Avenue living at 413 Kennedy

Zeller married Nettie Evelyn Lewis of London, Ontario in September 1913 at Holy Trinity Church on Donald Street.
The couple seem to disappear from directories after the marriage. Early biographies of Zeller, which are hazy about the details of is life around this time,  suggest they may have moved ti the U.S..

Zeller does not appear to have served in the First World War but was very active in the Second by working 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.

Zellers undergoing renovations, ca. 1939 (City of Winnipeg Archives)

When the Second World war was over, Zeller turned his attention back to business. In 1945 - 46 the company spent $12 million renovating old stores and adding new ones, including an expansion of the Portage Avenue store to take over the third floor of the building. By April 1946 there were 27 Zellers in 26 cities.

Conscious of the need for Canadians to have quality, stable jobs to help rebuild the economy, Zeller introduced a profit sharing scheme for full time employees in 1945, (executives were excluded from the plan.)

The amount split was based on a formula that took into account the operating profit of the individual store that the employee worked at, the pre-tax net profit of the chain, and an the number of years of service. In its first year, employees could earn up to $226 each, (about $3,000 in 2012 dollars.)

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

The chain then went through a number of owners, including W. T. Grant Co. of the U.S. and Fields Stores of Vancouver.

A second Zellers opened at the new Polo Park Shopping Centre in 1959. The downtown store closed in 1972, but by then there were additional stores at Fort Richmond Plaza, Northdale Shopping Centre, and Westwood Shopping Centre.

Winnipeg-based Hudson's Bay Company wanted to add a discount department store chain to its portfolio and in
August 1978 began buying up the company's publicly held stock. By September, it had acquired  had 51% control of the company and within a couple of years owned it outright.

The Bay Downtown

Under HBC ownership, Zellers stores were added at Northgate Plaza, Grant Park Plaza, and Nairn Avenue at Lagimodiere Boulevard around 1980.

The last Zellers store added in Winnipeg was in November 2010 in the basement of the bay's flagship department store on Portage Avenue just a couple of blocks away from where the chain's first store opened back 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.

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

HBC announced in 2012 that the remaining Zellers would close by March 2013, including the Bay and Northgate locations. It appears that the Fort Richmond store continued on for a few months longer as the city's final Zellers.


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.

Kdb said...

You are correct
I bought a Chatty Baby doll at Clarke’s in 1964 with my birthday money when I was 5 yrs old