Canadian Fashion Connection – Zellers

Walter Zeller, c. 1950

In 1928 Kitchener Ontario native Walter Zeller founded a discount retail chain of stores. He was bought out by the American owned Schulte-United dime stores allowing the company to expand into the Canadian market. Zeller was made manager of the Canadian division for Schulte-United, but with the onset of the Depression, the  U.S. company found itself over-extended.

In 1931 Zeller bought the Canadian stores from Schulte-United and reopened most of them under the new name of Zellers. His company expanded aggressively and in 1952 acquired the Eastern Canadian Federal dime chain stores. That same year the Zellers empire was effectively taken over by the American retail chain W.T. Grant acquiring 51% of the stock. Walter Zeller died in 1957, but his company continued to grow and prosper.

In the 1960s Zellers expanded into suburban mall locations until by 1976 the company consisted of 155 stores across Canada. W.T. Grant withdrew from Zellers in 1976 and declared bankruptcy in the U.S. Joseph Segal of Fields, a clothing retailer founded in Vancouver in 1950 won a bid to control Zellers by becoming the majority shareholder, but within a few months Zellers reversed the takeover and made Fields a subsidiary. In 1978, Zellers was bought out by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which maintained Zellers as a separate division to broaden its customer base. Zellers continued its strategy of growth, acquiring Towers Department stores (founded 1967) in 1991, some British Columbia Woodward’s store locations (following HBC’s takeover of Woodwards) in 1994, as well as the Canadian stores of the American retailer Kmart in 1998.

Zellers began struggling when Walmart entered the Canadian market, and in 2008 the Hudson Bay Company, Zeller’s parent company, was sold to a U.S. owner. Zeller’s will end its 80 year run this year as the remaining Zeller’s are converted to Target stores.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Woodwards

After an unsuccessful attempt at opening a series of stores in northern Ontario, Charles Woodward moved to Vancouver, B.C. in 1891. Despite his debts, Woodward managed to open a new store in 1892 but it was a struggle to keep the store going at first, made more difficult by the loss of his wife and two of his children to tuberculosis the same year. However, with the Vancouver population quadrupling in numbers during the 1890s, the store did well.

The 1902 store before later renovations and expansions. The building still stands at the corner of Hasting and Abbott street in Vancouver

To reach rural communities Woodward started a mail-order catalogue in 1896. In 1902 he took on six associates and incorporated as: Woodward’s Stores Ltd. A new flagship store was soon opened at the corner of Hastings and Abbott streets but by 1904 the partnership had soured and Charles bought out his partners’ stakes in the company.

In 1910 Woodwards introduced sale days, offering select merchandise at 25 cents. Over the years the price changed to 45-cents, 95-cents, and finally ‘$1.49 Tuesdays.’ With his three survivng sons involved in the business, Charles spent more time away from the store, but it was not in his nature to let the next generation take over while he was still alive. Returning from a long trip to California in 1919 Charles was not amused to discover the counters in the groceteria had been removed so that clients could help themselves. It took a lot of convincing before Charles begrudgingly agreed to the concept of the self-serve grocery store.

1923 catalogue - Woodwards was never a high fashion store - it supplied the everyday clothes - stockings, corsets, and galoshes

In 1924 the store began to be remodelled and expanded to fill an entire city block. In 1926, Charles and his second wife became the sole directors of a Woodwards store in downtown Edmonton, although it was not until Charles’ death in 1937 that it would be combined with the Vancouver business under a unified administration. Upon his father’s death, William Woodward was named President, but he left his brother Percival in charge while he accepted the appointment of Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia from 1941 to 1946.

Ambitious expansion plans were drafted after the war which began with the opening of the company’s third store in Port Alberni in 1948, as an experiment to see how smaller venues would fare in new locations. The Woodward’s gambled that malls were the wave of the future and in 1950 the fourth store opened at the Park Royal Shopping Centre in West Vancouver, the first enclosed mall in Canada. Four more stores would open before 1957, and the mail order business ceased operation in 1953, leaving catalogue sales to the longer-established Eaton’s and the new retailer Simpson-Sears.

Park Royal Shopping Centre, the first enclosed mall in Canada, 1950

William Woodward retired in 1956, leaving the company in the hands of his son Charles who would add 18 more stores, mostly in malls, in Western Canada over the next 25 years, culminating with the opening of four stores in 1981 alone.

The early 1980s recession hit Woodward’s hard. The rapid expansion of the preceding years had left the company financially extended just when interest rates grew to an all time high, making the debt load too much to bear. Woodward’s began disposing of assets to lower its liabilities. The stores closed their money-losing furniture departments and expanded their more profitable fashion departments, including purchasing the rights in 1984 to launch Abercrombie and Fitch stores in Canada. However, the downsizing and reorganizing only delayed the inevitable. Management passed from the Woodward family in 1989 and in 1992 the company filed for bankruptcy, 100 years after the first store was opened in Vancouver.

The Hudson’s Bay Company purchased most of the company’s assets, converting 21 of the 26 stores into Hudson Bay or Zellers stores.