In 1950 there were two leading Canadian department store chains with catalogue sales offices – Eaton’s and Simpson’s. Eaton’s was the pioneer in mail order sales, distributing its first catalogues in the fall of 1884. Simpson’s was a Toronto-based department store that had been in business since 1872 and mail order sales since 1905, but it was a distant second in catalogue sales to Eaton’s. In 1951 Simpsons was approached by the American mail order giant Sears, Roebuck & Co., who had been in catalogue sales since 1888 and expanded into retail department stores across the U.S. starting in the 1920s.
An agreement was reached in fall 1952 between Simpson’s and Sears that had Sears Roebuck taking control of the mail order business and for the two companies to enter into a joint-venture to build retail stores under the name ‘Simpsons-Sears’. The only rule was that for twenty years, no new stores could be built within 25 miles of existing Simpson’s stores in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, London and Regina.
In the spring of 1953 the first Simpsons-Sears mail order catalogue was delivered to homes across Canada. The following year, the first full-service Simpsons-Sears department store opened for business in Burnaby B.C. Over the next twenty years Simpsons-Sears stores became familiar sites, especially as anchor stores in the many malls being built across Canada. In 1973 the twenty-year agreement for Simpsons-Sears not to locate near Simpson’s stores expired. To avoid confusion new stores built in areas near existing Simpson’s stores, were named ‘Sears’.
In 1978, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) acquired Simpson’s and its shares in Simpsons-Sears. However, federal competition laws required the HBC to divest itself of its interest in Simpsons-Sears. Renamed as ‘Sears Canada’ the department store chain was now officially American owned and soon began to operate as a Canadian division of the American parent company (management was displaced by American executives and Canadian suppliers were abandoned in favour of American ones.)
The Hudson Bay Company gradually converted all Simpson’s stores to HBC stores by 1991, ending the Simpson’s name in Canadian retail history. In 1999, Sears Canada acquired the bankrupt Eaton’s and re-launched seven rebranded ‘eatons’ stores in November 2000 as upscale department stores, but the operation was too high-end in the emerging box-store market of cheap fast fashion imports and the venture closed in 2002.
Although Sears had a good reputation for its Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances, Sears clothing had gained a reputation since the 1970s for being out of step with fashion.
By the 1990s, Sears Canada couldn’t remain competitive against higher-end brand name fashions and lower-end discount sellers like Walmart. Catalogue sales plummeted in favour of online shopping and although Sears got into e-commerce in 1998, their fuddy-duddy reputation couldn’t compete against newer fashion lines. Sears found itself over-extended with too many long-term leases on brick and mortar locations that were empty of staff and customers. On October 10, 2017 Sears Canada received permission to close its remaining 131 stores across Canada, ending its 65 year history. Sears Canada website.
Originally posted Nov 18, 2011, updated October 11, 2017