As Sears winds down its store at the Eaton Centre, a look at how the retailer's Canadian branch emerged from a cross-border partnership.
When Simpsons and Sears, Roebuck announced their intention to form a joint venture to bring the American retail giant north of the border in March 1952, there were snickers that the resulting company would specialize in catalogues designed for hicks in the sticks. But, as the Toronto Star noted at the time, this did potential rural and urban customers a disservice:
City folk may hold the whimsical idea the catalogues are strictly for the out-of-touch back concessions. But when Farmer Brown’s wife leafs through a catalogue looking for a dress, she is used to seeing the garments offered draped on lovely, highly paid professional models photographed very often in colour. And countless city-bred women, outside Toronto and Montreal, are kept fashion-wise and well-dressed through Simpsons’ catalogues.
Shoppers digging for hidden bargains as Sears Canada winds down its Eaton Centre store may be surprised at the company’s deep roots in the neighbourhood. The retailer’s Canadian ancestry stretches back to Robert Simpson’s decision to offer mail order service from his dry goods store at Yonge and Queen soon after it opened in 1872. Though the Simpsons catalogue never achieved the iconic status across Canada that rival Eaton’s did, it contributed to the store’s profitability as it outgrew several warehouses.
The solution was an 11-storey service warehouse on Mutual Street north of Wilton Avenue (now Dundas Street). Built in 1916, it was touted as “the finest reinforced concrete building in America.” Besides mail order, the complex housed delivery and service departments which ran out of space at Yonge and Queen. Mail order’s reach continued to grow—by the time an addition extended the building north to Gould Street in 1931, catalogues printed on site were sent across Canada and to Newfoundland, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and the British colonies in the Caribbean. A final expansion completed in 1950 resulted in a building with over 1 million square feet of floor space, the most in the city until the Toronto-Dominion Centre arrived in the mid-1960s.
Murmurs soon arose of talks with Sears, Roebuck. The move was ironic, as Simpsons modelled its catalogue not on the Chicago-based mail order giant, but on its rival Montgomery Ward. Simpsons president Edgar G. Burton and Sears, Roebuck chairman General Robert E. Wood met through mutual acquaintances in 1951 and quickly hit it off. Wood had successfully expanded Sears’ reach into Mexico and South America following the Second World War, so Canada seemed fertile ground for growth. A brief foray into catalogue sales in British Columbia failed in 1947 due to high tariffs. Wood sensed competing against established Canadian retailers would be costly. “A businessman who rates good public relations high up the list of secrets of success,” the Financial Post observed, Wood “couldn’t quite see getting tangled up in a fight that would have a solid Canadian retail front lined up against ‘the Yankee invader.’”
Burton had reservations when Wood wrote him a letter proposing a joint venture, fearing such a business would damage existing Simpsons stores. But he soon saw the advantages of utilizing Sears’s merchandising expertise, as well as the opportunity to expand into areas of Canada not suited for full Simpsons stores. On the Sears side, executives rejected the idea over several heated meetings. The tension got to Wood, who slammed the meeting table with his hand. “Stop this,” he said. “Stop it now. We’re going to do it. Let’s find out how to do it because we’re going to do it.”
On March 26, 1952, officials from both retailers confirmed rumours that they were holding discussions. Simpsons chairman (and Edgar’s father) Charles L. Burton reassured employees they had nothing to fear from any potential deal. “No one is going to be displaced or sidetracked—in fact, Canadian personnel will have every reason to expect advantages and greater opportunities,” Burton noted.
On July 21, 1952, Wood and Charles Burton announced the formation of Simpsons-Sears Ltd., whose ownership was split evenly between the two retailers. The new firm would purchase Simpsons’s mail order division and operate from Mutual Street. Employees would be retained and continue to receive long-standing Simpsons perks like profit sharing. Edgar Burton served as the firm’s first president through 1956, after which Canadians served as the company’s chairman and CEO, while Americans filled the presidency.
Plans called for the new company to source up to 85 per cent of its merchandise from Canadian manufacturers. Edgar Burton indicated firms that had traditionally supplied Simpsons could work with the new venture, as long as they didn’t mind cutting costs. “We don’t want to radically disturb Canadian manufacturers who have worked with us for a number of years in the past,” Burton noted. “But it they don’t want to work with us on a profitable basis the way we want, we may have to make a change.” The results included Kenmore washing machines manufactured by Inglis. Sears brands distributed by other Canadian retailers, such as the Coldspot refrigerators found at Eaton’s, were reclaimed.
As for retail presence, existing Simpsons mail order outlets would switch to the Simpsons-Sears nameplate. Up to 50 stores were planned in four sizes ranging from full department stores to small outlets specializing in appliances, furniture, and catalogue sales. To protect itself, Simpsons inserted a clause which protected their existing stores in Halifax, London, Montreal, and Regina—no Simpsons-Sears store would be built within 25 miles of those five cities.
While this meant none of the new stores would appear in Toronto, it didn’t prevent the new company from expanding its local holdings. In December 1952, 144 acres in Etobicoke Township were purchased from General Electric, who had planned on building a transformer plant. The site would be used as a distribution centre for Ontario and Quebec, easing pressure on Mutual Street as Simpsons-Sears established its administrative offices. Edgar Burton was leery about the acquisition, due to cost and its remote location—he reportedly asked, “Why would you want to build out there?” Fellow executives assured him any excess land could be sold off. The location was ultimately wise—on Old Malton Road (now Rexdale Boulevard) between Kipling and Islington, slightly north of the then-under-construction Highway 401. The warehouse, eventually associated with Kenmore products, was designed by John B. Parkin Associates, and earned a Massey Medal for Architecture in 1955 for “showing mastery of industrial form.”
Simpsons-Sears’ move into Etobicoke proved beneficial for developer Rex Heslop. Now that the township was satisfied the area had enough industrial projects underway, it allowed Heslop to proceed with the residential neighbourhood he bestowed his name to: Rexdale.
The new chain experienced growing pains. While distribution of the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue went smoothly in February 1953, a policy borrowed from Sears to impose delivery charges for hard goods and large items irked customers. Eaton’s took advantage of the blunder by touting free delivery. Simpsons-Sears reduced the fee to a shipping charge for items over 25 pounds in 1955, and scrapped the extra costs entirely the following year.
The first new store also proved a dud. Opened in Stratford on September 17, 1953, the three-floor store was converted from a mail order outlet/furniture retailer. Despite expensive remodelling, the store remained cramped. A limited assortment failed to win customers, so the store quickly reverted to its previous format. Not until May 1954 did the first proper store open in Burnaby, B.C., foreshadowing the chain’s preference for suburban sites.
Golden Horseshoe shoppers got their first taste of the chain when it arrived in Hamilton on the former grounds of the Hamilton Jockey Club racetrack on November 17, 1954. The store opened ahead of the plaza it anchored, the Greater Hamilton Shopping Centre, a mouthful of a name later shortened to Centre Mall. Around 50 police officers directed traffic around Barton Street and Kenilworth Avenue before Mayor Lloyd Jackson cut the ribbon at 10 a.m. The store boasted 42 departments and 1,500 parking spots. Among its employees was Margaret Wognsbeck, who was hired to ensure “colour harmony.” As she told the Hamilton Spectator, different colours were used in each department “to get the most suitable colour for each kind of merchandise.”
Despite the restrictions which prevented the chain from securing prime locations in new suburban malls in Montreal and Toronto, Simpsons-Sears was financially healthy. Over its first 15 years, sales rose from $113 million to $449 million. This environment prompted executives to reveal in October 1968 plans to build a $17-million head office complex on its Jarvis Street employee parking lot. The company claimed it was staying downtown to avoid disrupting its catalogue business. The announcement came amid a wave of downtown project announcements, for properties which evolved into Commerce Court South, the Manulife Centre, the Sheraton Centre, and the U of T residence on Chestnut Street. Simpsons-Sears CEO J.C. Barrow hoped his contribution to the building wave would raise the stature of Jarvis Street, which the Globe and Mail observed “has had little interesting development.”
Designed by in-house architect Maxwell Miller, the nine-storey structure employed a cantilevered design which stretched its base from 200 square feet at street level to 240 on the top floor. Amenities included a “sound curtain” of electronically produced ambient noise to drown out conversations. “It will be,” Miller noted, “an innocuous sound with no pitch or beat or apparent source of origin or any distracting feature.”
Miller chose to clad the building in hard, dirt-resistant, purple-bronze brick. A skywalk linked the new building to the Mutual Street complex. The result, which employees moved into in 1971, was a brutalist structure which invoked strong opinions. As architect Jeff Hayes notes in an essay in the book Concrete Toronto:
More like an armoury (or a thick-skinned dinosaur, for that matter) than an office building, its outward treatment, along with its oppressive bulk, acts more to repulse people than draw them in. Alternately, it’s a remarkably well-executed building, and upon close examination one can appreciate the high level of craftsmanship in its construction and rigorously detailed features. It has aged very well in 35 years, perhaps to the dismay of its many detractors, who would rather see the mammoth topple or be pulled down.
The move to 222 Jarvis was one of many changes to the chain during the early 1970s. The 25-mile restriction was scrapped, allowing Simpsons-Sears stores to inch their way towards Toronto. First up was Square One in Mississauga, which opened in October 1973. Shoppers used to stores elsewhere noticed something different: the Simpsons name, which had gradually shrunk in prominence within the store logo, had disappeared entirely. The change would soon become apparent across the chain in advertising and catalogues. A year later, Hillcrest Mall in Richmond Hill was the first shopping mall to house Simpsons and Sears stores under one roof. The chain finally entered the city of Toronto in September 1975 when a store opened at Gerrard Square, a location now occupied by Home Depot.
The chain’s 25th anniversary celebrations were marked by financial intrigue. In August 1978, Simpsons and Simpsons-Sears announced a merger in principle, subject to federal approval. Nationalist groups asked the federal government to step in and buy both companies to keep them in Canadian hands. The plot thickened when Hudson’s Bay Company made a bid to Simpsons shareholders in November 1978. Weeks of lobbying from both sides followed, with Simpsons executives attempting to fend off The Bay. The deal between Simpsons and Simpsons-Sears unravelled in December, with both sides blaming the other for the misunderstandings which caused its demise. End result: The Bay gained controlled of Simpsons, and took a minority stake in Simpsons-Sears which lasted until 1983. Any lingering restrictions on where Sears stores could be located evaporated. The final link between the former partners was broken in 1984, when Simpsons-Sears Ltd. was renamed Sears Canada Inc.
The Mutual Street site remained with Sears until 1988, when it was involved in a complicated land swap. The City demanded that developers involved in the eternally on-again, off-again Bay-Adelaide Centre project provide a downtown site for affordable housing before green-lighting the tower. Mutual Street would be purchased for $32.8 million, then handed over to the city—under the deal, Sears could remain for up to five more years. The deal unravelled when Bay-Adelaide didn’t materialize at the time, leaving the city stuck with the property. It was sold to Cresford in 1996 and converted into condo lofts. The site is currently known as the Merchandise Building.
Also eventually discarded was 222 Jarvis Street, which was sold to the provincial government in 2007 as part of Sears’s cost-cutting measures (or, as critics have suggested, Sears Holdings CEO Edward Lampert’s penchant for milking the company for cash instead of improving retail operations) across North America. While Sears employees moved into offices above the Eaton Centre store the chain acquired with Eaton’s in 1999, the old headquarters began an ongoing LEED-certified retrofit to house several government ministries, which is scheduled for completion in 2014.
Given Sears Canada’s recent store-closure announcements and rumours surrounding its long-term viability, it’s possible that its old office buildings on Mutual and Jarvis may outlast the retailer.
Additional material from Concrete Toronto, Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart, editors (Toronto: Coach House/E.R.A. Architects, 2007), Shaping an American Institution: Robert E. Wood and Sears, Roebuck by James C. Worthy (Scarborough: Meridian, 1986), Simpsons-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years (Toronto: Simpsons-Sears, 1979), and the following newspapers: the September 27, 1952 and December 13, 1952 editions of the Financial Post; the August 4, 1931 edition of the Globe; the November 18, 1954, November 19, 1955, October 25, 1968, October 30, 1968, November 20, 1970, October 22, 1988, and October 24, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 16, 1954 and November 17, 1954 editions of the Hamilton Spectator; the December 30, 1916, March 27, 1952, July 22, 1952, November 13, 1952, February 19. 1953, December 1978, and May 28, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star; and the March 26, 1952, March 27, 1952, July 22, 1952, December 4, 1952, and October 25, 1968 editions of the Telegram.