Historicist: If You Knew Sayvette a Little Better, You'd Like It a Lot More
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Historicist: If You Knew Sayvette a Little Better, You’d Like It a Lot More

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Detail from advertisement in the Toronto Star, September 6, 1961.

If you were a retailer looking to launch a new department store chain in the early 1960s, the discount market appeared to be the way to go. While Toronto did have one-off discounters (Honest Ed’s) and lower-priced annexes of existing retailers (Eaton’s), businessmen looked at the prosperity of American discounters like E.J. Korvette and saw potential for setting up similar chains in Canada. For several years after Towers opened its first store in Scarborough in the fall of 1960, discount chains with varying degrees of longevity made their debut around Metropolitan Toronto. One of the splashiest openings belonged to Sayvette, who promised to shake up the department store sector. In its two decades of retailing, Sayvette went from grandiose dreams and promising new retail approaches to dead weight on the balance sheet of one of the country’s largest food merchants. Along the way Sayvette experienced little profitability, speculation over its ownership, unrealized expansion plans, and a constant search for where it fit in the retail landscape.

Touting the Women’s Advisory Council. Toronto Star, September 1, 1961.

Though cloaked in a shroud of mystery when the chain was first announced in February 1961, it soon became clear that Sayvette had no shortage of ideas for launching its initial store at Thorncliffe Market Place (now East York Town Centre) that September. Unlike competitors such as Towers that left the operations of some departments in the hands of concessions, Sayvette planned to run all of its operations on its own. Goods were to be of medium to high quality, with discounts provided by a cutting of traditional department store frills—if customers wanted gift wrapping or delivery, they’d have to pay for it. The floor plan called for one hundred and seventy thousand square feet of space split among three floors, with departments clearly identified by their colour (ladies’ clothing was purple, sporting goods “Limerick green”). The store’s design was based on “the most successful discount department store in the United States,” which seemed to point at E.J. Korvette. Rather than interrupt the beautiful music piped into the store with staff announcements, employees were equipped with walkie talkies to relay messages. Customers didn’t have to worry about burning tons of gas to find a parking spot, as the lot was equipped with a signal system indicating if spaces were available in each aisle.
Schacter believed that it was important for Sayvette “to be good citizens first and then good retailers.” One method of community outreach was the establishment of the Sayvette Women’s Advisory Committee. Members were drawn from over seventy-five church groups, home and school organizations, and service clubs across East York, North York, Leaside, and Toronto. The committee was used to gauge community tastes, advise on displays and gift ideas, help match the range of merchandise to female preferences, and suggest community projects worthy of sponsorship. The Telegram followed two members on a tour just before the store opened, where the most closely scrutinized item appeared to be the price tags (originally deemed too small and packed with information that was required for Sayvette’s IBM data tracking system). The committee members passed a “beautiful” verdict on the store.
Schacter was also proud of Sayvette’s return policy:

There will be no long delays, no forms to fill out, no identification to be made, no cash voucher to take to another desk in order finally to receive cash. Money will be handed over immediately, with no questions asked. We can see that a few people may try to take advantage of this system. They may quote incorrect prices, they may even bring back merchandise that was never purchased at Sayvette. But we would rather risk this than to inconvenience the 99.9 per cent of shoppers who are honest, by forcing them to tolerate delays, red tape and embarrassment…A store must be like an individual. Honesty and integrity are its most important characteristics.

Sayvette City under construction. The North Toronto Free Press, November 10, 1961.

When the doors closed on September 7, 1961, over seventy thousand customers passed through the first Sayvettte. Construction was well underway for Sayvette City, at the southwest corner of Yonge Street and Steeles Avenue (now Centrepoint Mall), which opened in November with claims of containing the largest acreage of retail space in Metropolitan Toronto. The grand plan was for at least twenty stores from coast to coast, and a small profit at the end of the first year looked promising…but trouble was on the horizon. Within a month of the grand opening, the company’s main investor, American real-estate magnate Marvin Kratter, decided it was time to sell out. Despite two more openings in 1962 (at sites that are now home to Dixie Mall in Mississauga and White Oaks Mall in London), losses for that year came in around $1.5 million. The discount department store market quickly oversaturated, as veteran players (Kresge, Woolworth, Zellers) and new companies (Banner, Disc Buy, Sentry) entered the fray. Schacter was soon out and the new management team engaged in cost-cutting measures that slashed over half of head office. As new President Paul Jeffery put it, “there has been too much talk of grandiose plans.”
Amid the tide of red ink a mysterious suitor arrived in early 1964 promising a $2.5 million line of credit and other guarantees to keep the company afloat on the condition that its identity was not made public. Though rumours included Marks and Spencer among the possible suitors (Sayvette had carried St. Michael-branded goods), speculation among business-beat writers cast Loblaws as the secretive saviour. The grocer was rumoured to be interested in Sayvette as early as the sale of Kratter’s shares, and corporate parent George Weston’s tendency to flaunt disclosure rules never made anyone sure just how many companies it had interests in. Suspicions of Loblaws’s involvement were heightened when one of its staffers was named a Sayvette director soon after the offer was announced. For reasons not fully explained other than that they were “good ones,” the Toronto Stock Exchange approved the deal in early 1965 without public disclosure of the suitor, who also gained stock purchase options and a $2.5 million consulting fee at the end of five years. Until the full extent of Loblaws’s holdings was revealed during federal hearings into the cost of living later in the decade, newspapers dropped cloak-and-dagger style hints about their involvement in Sayvette.

Introducing the “new” Sayvette. The Telegram, May 3, 1967.

Turmoil was not limited to the back room. One particularly bad customer experience was related to Star columnist Ron Haggart in March 1966. Evelyn Powell had her eye on a Sparton television set advertised in January for $96 (originally $149.95). She attempted to order one over the phone from the Yonge and Steeles location, but the salesman told her it was a piece of junk due to cheap aesthetics and bad tubes, but that she should come into the store to look at other models. She put aside thoughts of the television until she walked through the Thorncliffe store a month later, where she saw the same set on display, still only $96. When she attempted to purchase the set, the salesman said, “oh you wouldn’t want that set. I wouldn’t like to sell it to you. It’s no good. The wiring’s no good, and look at the cheap chassis,” then tried to sell her a $159 RCA set. Powell told a friend who was a TV repairman about the incident, which he chalked up to a “bait and switch” offer and assured her under no circumstances would they ever sell her the Sparton. She returned to Thorncliffe the following day and seemed to be ready to purchase the set from a new salesman. Suddenly, a manager clad in an overcoat and fedora approached, then proceed to yell at the salesman. “Big Boss” (as the column referred to the manager) approached Powell and gave her a long, argumentative list of excuses as to why she couldn’t buy the set she wanted. Powell stood her ground as a crowd watched the two battle it out for an hour. “Big Boss” finally gave in and Powell had her “perfect little set,” which worked perfectly well after a month of use. Perhaps it was bad press such as this, along with other problems, that led to ads touting “the new Sayvette” beginning in May 1967.

Advertisements from the Toronto Star: May 20, 1967 (top) and June 29, 1967 (bottom).

Sayvette entered a brief period of profitability, which prompted a renewal of expansion plans. By 1973, the chain reached its peak size of eleven stores, though it extended no further than Barrie and Windsor. By this time the “no concessions” policy had long been abandoned, as retailers such as Bata Shoes, Koffler Drugs (who evolved into Shoppers Drug Mart), and White Rose Garden Centres operated portions of the stores at different times. When Loblaws introduced a unified style to its divisions in 1973, Sayvette followed along.

Sayvette advertisement, Toronto Star, May 14, 1975.

As the economy slid into recession in the mid-1970s, Sayvette floundered. Retail analysts marked much of its problems due to weak customer perception—the company occupied the mushy middle between consistent discounts like K-Mart and Woolco, and regular department stores like Eaton’s and Simpsons. Various solutions were proposed by revolving executives, including a switch to retailing clothing only (one executive wished Sayvette would “become the biggest men’s, women’s, and children’s apparel store in Canada”). The nature of shopping trips to Sayvette also proved problematic. In a 1975 interview, president Paul Harrington noted that “the only people that were coming to Sayvette were people who lived near one of our stores. In other words, we had become convenience stores—but convenience stores with more than one hundred thousand square feet of space. And convenience stores should never be more than five thousand feet.” Specials drew in customers who promptly left the store without buying anything else.
By mid-1975, Harrington was given simple advice by Loblaws Chairman Galen Weston: “Stop the losses.” In a move that may have marked Sayvette’s point of no return, it was announced that all three locations in Metropolitan Toronto would close during the summer of 1975, along with stores in Barrie and Malton. Harrington tried to sound confident about pressing forward elsewhere as a high-value store whose promotions would be geared towards the smaller markets it now served. “Today’s consumer must know who you are,” he told the Financial Post. “Unlike K-Mart, which has a name that doesn’t really denote anything and thus could theoretically be changed for a new image, Sayvette’s name does denote what it should do.”

Closing sale for Sayvette’s Toronto locations. Toronto Star, July 15, 1975.

But Sayvette didn’t follow its name for much longer. Store closings continued throughout the rest of 1975, as the effects of the recession and Loblaws management wishing to be rid of its weakest link continued to be felt. A store planned for Thunder Bay that October opened as a Loblaws. The chain lingered on for two more years until the lights were turned off for good at the Ajax location in December 1977.
Additional material from the June 28, 1975 edition of the Financial Post; the April 30, 1975 and June 11, 1975 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 7, 1961 edition of the Leaside Advertiser; the September 6, 1961 edition of the Telegram; the March 25, 1961, May 21, 1961, October 19, 1961, August 2, 1963, March 23, 1966, and June 14, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.