Zellers lives!: A visit to one of the country’s remaining stores

One of the country's two remaining Zellers

One of the country’s two remaining Zellers

It’s been roughly two years since the Canadian staple Zellers began its liquidation with plans to go out of business. While most of Zellers’ 250+ locations are now Targets, Walmarts, vacant or construction sites, two of those sites still house an open and fully-functioning Zellers. That’s right, Zellers still lives. It turns out that it wasn’t entirely true when they said the chain was closing for good, and one of the few remaining stores in the country, on the planet, in the universe is in Toronto.

Out of curiosity (and admittedly kinda missing it), I ventured out to find the sole remaining Zellers this side of the country. I hopped onto the subway at Yonge and Dundas and took the long ride over to the furthest station west on the Bloor-Danforth line, Kipling, to make it to the elusive store.

Not too far from the Dundas station where I boarded the subway and started my journey, there was another major retailer shutting down. Sears was in the process of closing its Eaton Centre location, and it was as surreal as seeing Zellers close its doors. Sears’ Eaton Centre shop (and the Yorkdale store that I visited later) dwindled to almost nothing. It was bare, empty and quite the mind trip. Fortunately, it’s not the last of the chain though; plenty locations remain across the country. Sears is just closing some of its more prominent stores.

With Hudson’s Bay’s decision to keep two Zellers locations open, however, it made a surreal situation even more strange. I should say here that three stores remained open after the chain was set to close, but one of them out in Quebec shuttered for good just a few weeks ago.

A North York Zellers in liquidation

A North York Zellers in liquidation

What happened to Zellers is a lot like seeing a band that’s been performing for decades go on a final world tour, but then three members quietly decide to keep the band active and only perform beach shows in California completely under the radar, and then one randomly drops out. As implausible as that sounds, that’s exactly how shutting down a chain of 250+ stores and quietly keeping three (now two) feels, but oddly enough bigger.

Regardless of how unprecedented it seems to have an iconic chain like Zellers close only to try to straggle back, it isn’t. I’m barely old enough to remember the closure and short-lived comeback of Eaton’s. Another example of the phenomenon is Radio Shack. It disappeared from Canada and attempted a comeback as well, but the chain only pulled out of the country again shortly later. Out in the US, when Circuit City collapsed it went web only for a while, but then its website folded into Tiger Direct.

What’s odd about Zellers is that it never went away entirely, and the remaining locations have virtually zero fanfare around them. The only similar instance I can think of to Zellers’ is what happened to Sam The Record Man. Sam’s was a chain of 140 stores across the country, but now it only consists of a random store in Belleville and a website. Unlike the two remaining Zellers stores, Sam’s is very conscious of its place in Canadian retail history and of its fans. Sam’s even sells t-shirts commemorating the brand.

From what I understand, having chains cut down to anemic numbers like Zellers or Sam’s is rare. It is far more common for major chains to disappear as Everything for a Dollar Store, Simpsons, Bi-Way and the Canadian arms of K-Mart, Blockbuster and WoolCo did.

On the subway ride over to Zellers, I was oblivious to a lot happening around me. All I remember is a blind man took a seat next to me sometime during the commute. My mind was just enamored with how strange it would be seeing a Zellers up and running again: What would it even look like?

When I hit Kipling station, it was the end of the line, and everyone had to leave the subway. The blind man wandered off declining any help coming his way. I went up the stairs and pulled out one of my gizmos to see which connecting bus route I’d need to take from the subway station to get to the store.

Miraculously from the array of buses at the station, I found the one. I grabbed a seat close to the front of the bus, and guess who wandered in. The blind guy, and somehow he landed in a seat right next to me again. To cope with the bizarreness of the whole situation I just accepted that somewhere along on the subway ride I entered the twilight zone and tried to forget it.

Anyway, the bus ride was short. I thanked the driver once I got off, recycled my giant Starbucks lemonade, and looked around. It was bitterly cold out, and the street had a sort of cold look to it too. I mean cold as industrial and lacking a homey feel, but I suppose literally as well considering the patches of ice I had to avoid.
The Queensway mall featuring Zellers

The Queensway mall featuring Zellers

So there it was, plain as day on the mall’s sign: Zellers. It was right above logos for Sobeys, Swiss Chalet, RBC, a travel agency and a large one for Winners. Despite the sign, it was still hard to believe it still existed. Granted, I didn’t even see the actual store yet. A right turn onto the mall’s parking lot though, and there, sure enough, was a Zellers logo on the side of the building. Beside it a banner read, “last chance outlet now open” in all lower case red and white letters, very Zellers like. So I couldn’t question it any longer, the store lives, but with the way it was phrased on the sign it seemed as if they’d be closing up shop anytime soon.

When I entered the mall, it was very brown and beige, kinda late 70s feeling but boom there it was: Zellers. It had around four or five round racks with clothes in front, and from afar, it looked like an ordinary pre-liquidation Zellers. Once you got closer though, things started to look a tad bit askew. While some of the more generic signs like the ones pointing out where you’d find the checkouts or men’s clothes, for example, looked just as they did before most of the chain closed. The large signs with prices, however, appeared homemade. They were printed on colourful paper and seemed nothing like the ones you’d find in a typical Zellers. Inside the shop, I came across Zellers’ signature fire-red carts and baskets (I didn’t spot the rolling variant though). When I walked further in I noticed most of the aisles were gone, and it went open concept. Surprisingly, some employees still wore the old Zellers uniform while they worked away at random tasks.

The Queensway Zellers from the outside

The Queensway Zellers from the outside

When I hit the racks, I realized that many of the clothes were from Hudson’s Bay, complete with their old “The Bay” logo on the price tag. You’d spot the odd item with the old Zellers sticker on them though. You know the one; it’s small, white, square and has the Zellers logo in the dead centre.

Once you made your way through the store, you might’ve thought a hurricane went through it, or some sort of disaster wiped out the entire city and the store was starting from scratch. Sections against the far right and back walls were simply empty. Not Target empty, but empty empty. Random mattresses littered the far back and a dark hole in the far right that said something along the lines of “Mattress Shop” above it. I didn’t bother to go in there though as it appeared closed. Off to the far left, there was some out of place furniture and a guy sitting down on one of the couches. There were around two short aisles in front of them when making your way back to the front.

A flyer posted in the store with the latest promotions

A flyer posted in the store with the latest promotions

They held random things no one would ever want like really large Christmas decorations. When you made your way to the front wall, you’d find some shoes for sale, nothing special. On the opposite side of the wall, you have greeting cards, bargain books and roughly three bins of DVDs. Beyond that you have a small selection of children’s clothes. As far as I could tell there were no electronics, jewelry, sporting equipment, magazines or toys aside from the odd teddy bear hanging around, and no the teddy bears weren’t Zeddys, unfortunately.

The store was a Zellers and simultaneously not a Zellers all at the same time. As I left, I passed by the old grey cash desks and the grey security tower thingies that occasionally went off at the front of the store. (Yes, they still work, and the guy who lives in them still gives you the inventory control tag speech if you set them off.) It was an odd being in there; very surreal as I was walking around in a place that was supposed to be history.

Despite the signage and some of the props, the store wasn’t really a Zellers. You couldn’t buy a cheap TV for your room, a copy of American Idiot, a basketball, a cheap watch for your mom for Mother’s Day or a copy of US Weekly. It was very limited and barely a Zellers, heck it was barely a store. Zellers or whatever that was, was essentially a liquidation centre for Hudson’s Bay, a sort of poor man’s Winners. Well not poor man’s since the prices were pretty awful, and the merchandise more so. Let’s just say a crappier Winners.

The mall's shuttered EFADS

The mall’s shuttered EFADS

As I left the store, and I walked around the very, very small mall, I noticed it held a location of another recently shuttered chain, Everything for a Dollar Store. (As you might remember, it also went by Everything for a Dollar and More near the end of its run when it had to increase prices for what I can only assume was to account for inflation and the general crappy economy). The EFADS wasn’t a zombie store like Zellers, it was closed, as you’d expect.

I thought about what I just saw, and I felt the current incarnation of Zellers is probably not going to last. When I learned about the recent closure of the Quebec location it cemented my opinion. If it were to live on somehow HBC would probably just rebrand it as what it really is, a Hudson’s Bay outlet store. In the unlikely circumstance Zellers lives on, they’d have to show it some love, spruce up the two existing locations, open up a few others, get the word out and maybe play on the novelty of the brand. I think HBC could make use of outlet stores, although I was a bit disappointed with the merchandise I came across at Zellers and the prices. If they give it the attention it needs and if they could get the prices to be reasonable I think it could work.
An old Zellers in Whitby remodelled as a Target

An old Zellers in Whitby remodeled as a Target

Still the retail landscape is grim. Sears doesn’t know what it’s doing, Radio Shack (in the US) as well as Staples are hurting too and the spiritual successor of Zellers, Target, is bombing up here in Canada. Regardless of the hype, it has been a disappointment. The prices are sky-high and despite extensive renovations, the stores seem largely the same as Zellers except a bit cleaner and strangely vacant, with barely anyone shopping inside. I’ve seen Internet commenters say, if they had the choice, knowing what they know now, they’d prefer to have Zellers back opposed to Target.

When I left the mall and Zellers behind, I went to the neighbouring Winners and then to Yorkdale to get some actual shopping done. Today’s Zellers was worthless, a novelty, not a good novelty either. There was nothing worthwhile, the prices were relatively high and it only kinda sorta looked like the Zellers of yesteryear. Still I’m hoping Zellers gets the attention it needs and lives on just because Canada has already lost virtually all its retail brands. Having Zellers in the department store graveyard wouldn’t do anyone any good.