Advertisement, the Toronto Star, November 11, 1931. Full-size version.
For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some fans call it, Tar-zhay) have drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.
Advertisement, the Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.
Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.
Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”
Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers. Though various marketing strategies and older, messy stores never won Zellers the cheap-chic cachet that Target has earned, we suspect there will be a tear or two shed at the end of a long-time Canadian brand. So long Club Z, family restaurants, and Zeddy.
Advertisement, the Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.Full-size version.
Additional material from the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post, and the November 7, 1931 and November 10, 1931 editions of the Toronto Star.