Zellers: Don’t Call it a Comeback!

photo via YouTube

What are some of the stores you remember best from your childhood? In Canada, one of these classics was Zellers. It peaked in the 80s and into the 90s, but like a lot of other beloved retail stores, just couldn’t hang on and finally shut its doors around 2013. But *cue record scratch* looks like it is to be resurrected.

The name Zellers will most likely only mean something to Canadians. It’s a blast from the past that looks to be making a comeback. But the story of the return of this beloved Canadian store is really the same story that has happened everywhere–and it’s about so much more than our favorite retail stores closing their doors. It’s about the things from our youth that are no longer there. It’s about how there is nostalgia to bring them back. The changing retail landscape has eliminated a lot of our beloved retail favorites, and many of the things we loved from the 80s just couldn’t hang on. But the memories still remain. 

Growing Up With Zellers

 Before Walmart had established a strong foothold here, Zellers was our go-to. And it wouldn’t break the bank. It was the place you went for back-to-school shopping, Christmas, birthday party gifts, snacks, or anything you needed in a pinch. And the quality wasn’t that bad. Every pair of shoes I ever got for the new school year–including my first pair of hi-tops, ever–came from Zellers.

The first time I ever went out to eat as a kid was at a Zellers restaurant. I’m sure the meal was absolute garbage, but to a very young me, this was the height of the culinary world. Little did we know that including a restaurant in a department store was a pioneering idea to keep people–especially families with screaming young kids–in the store for longer. 

I think every classic 1980s toy I ever got came from Zellers. I loved walking in and hearing the murmur of the shoppers, hearing the piped-in muzak, the distinct smell of french fries from the restaurant, and seeing all the colorful products stacked on the shelves. I distinctly remember the first toy I ever bought with my own money. I earned it from simple cleaning jobs around the house. And my goal was the GI Joe Harrier Jet. There was an indescribable thrill to pick it off the shelf, pull out my money and pay for it… by myself. And this all happened at a Zellers. The company even got into some huge trouble with Atari in the 80s–but we’ll come back to this pretty crazy story in a bit…

You may have similar shopping memories in a completely different store. But this childhood act of buying your own products is still a shared experience–no matter where you shopped. For many of us in Canada in the 80s, that was Zellers. Even though it’s been closed for nearly a decade, it looks to be making a return, resurrected by the Hudson Bay Company.

But there’s a bigger picture at play here. It has to do with many of those things–in this case, retail stores–that were a part of our lives in the 80s and are no longer there. We just assumed the stores we always shopped at would continue to be with us. Maybe it’s a stretch to say we took them for granted, but something as simple as a shopping experience–and the stores we visited in our childhoods–really are a part of our own personal histories.

But this is about so much more than just the possible return of a Canadian retail staple, it’s about how much the retail landscape changed. And it’s ultimately about our memories. You no doubt have memories of certain stores you always went to in the 80s that are no longer with us. And this again speaks to the power of nostalgia. We can consider nostalgia a yearning or even pain for the past. And it’s such a strong emotion that giant corporations like The Hudson Bay company believe it’s worth giving a company like Zellers another shot. They are “tapping into the nostalgia of the brand.”

Depending on when you are reading this, the experiment has either succeeded or failed. But that’s really beside the point. The point is about giving the public what they want. And in this case, it’s about resurrecting a place that many Canadians feel nostalgic for. But what got us to this point….?

In the 1950s and 60s, our downtowns ruled the landscape. Department stores and main street shop fronts were our retail of choice. As we moved into the 1970s, the mall started to take over.

By the 1980s, malls were not only the only retail game in town but the focal point of our communities and even our social outlets. 

Mall culture was at its peak in the 1980s and hanging out in a food court was like our version of social media. If you wanted to see or hear what everyone was doing or show off something new, you headed for the mall. If you had something new to wear or got a new haircut, you weren’t able to post a picture of yourself on social media; you had to strut through the mall for everyone to see. 

Even though malls and big department stores like Zellers seemed like they would never fade away; we all know how it turned out. With Zellers set to make a comeback of sorts, this is not just a look back at a Canadian icon, but is also a look at how our shopping and spending habits have changed. And even though this is about a specific Canadian store, it’s really about something so much bigger.

Retail giants probably thought they would hang on forever, but we’ve seen how many have dwindled down to nearly nothing. Sears, RadioShack, Kmart, Toys “R” Us, Tower Records, Blockbuster Video, Waldenbooks, Consumers Distributing, Woolco, and BI-Way, are just a few examples from my perspective of things that we grew up with in the 80s and into the 90s that are pretty much gone. And no matter what country you live in, you will no doubt have your own version of stores like this. You probably have fond memories of certain places that are no longer with you. And this story has been the same across the board. 

The Origin of Zellers

Not unlike Kmart, Zellers was simply a discount department store chain. Its origins go back to the late 1920s when it was founded by Walter P. Zeller. Zellers began with a single store, and it did pretty well. So well, in fact, that American retailer Schulte noticed it and then purchased the store. 

The timing of this purchase was not exactly ideal as we were about to enter the great depression. What’s interesting is that Zellers has its origins right around the dawn of modern mass consumerism. And it puts them in a unique position to have experienced vast changes over the course of retail history. Zellers–and stores like it who hung on even longer–have had to exist through times of war; the changing face of our downtowns; the move to the suburbs; mall culture; the rise of the internet; a global financial crisis, a global pandemic, along with multiple years of inflation and recession. 

These stores have been the bedrock of our communities because, no matter what is happening in the world, you still need milk; you still need toilet paper; you still need birthday and Christmas gifts, and you obviously have to eat. 

After the Great Depression, The Schulte company would go out of business and in 1931, the founder bought the remaining Zellers stores back. The company would grow slowly but surely opening 60 stores over the next 25 years. They would partner with some American stores to increase their reach. Going into the late 70s, there were now 155 Zellers locations across Canada.

It was during this period that they had experimented with new ideas, such as restaurants and an automotive center. They were also the first store to open in a suburban mall. 

Going into the 1980s

The company was doing well. So well, in fact, that they thought they would try to go after one of the oldest companies in the world. The Hudson’s Bay Company–or simply, The Bay to fellow Canucks.

The Hudson’s Bay Company has origins that go back over 350 years. Actually founded in London, England, in May 1670, Hudson’s Bay started as a fur trading business around the gigantic Hudson’s Bay. 

In 1978, Zellers presented a bid to acquire ownership of them but HBC saw the success Zellers was having and instead purchased them. Going into the 1980s, it was full steam ahead. And the Hudson’s Bay Company had made a smart move: In 1983, just five years after purchasing Zellers, the company hit $1 billion in yearly sales. By 1989, they had doubled this to $2 billion. And just a few years after that, it was up to $3 billion. Zellers would ride that wave of success from the 1980s right into the 90s when it would hit its peak with 350 stores.

But, also in the 80s, there was the little skirmish with Atari.

This may be a bit of a deep cut for even Canadians, but this is pretty ridiculous story. I mentioned how Zellers was the go-to choice for classic 1980s toys. But it was also the place to head for video games. Birthday money, paper route income–we spent it all on video games, and in the early 80s; that meant Atari. In fact, Atari was one of their hottest items. They were even hard to keep on the shelves. How could Zellers get more of them? They would start selling counterfeit games made in Taiwan. These games were pirated copies of ones already made by Atari, but some were from third-party developers. How did they get around this? The games were often given new names and completely new artwork.

I have very, very vague memories of these games and how they didn’t look like they were proper Atari games. It was the artwork that just seemed to separate them from the ones that felt more familiar. But they said Atari, so they must be. In some situations, even the graphics were modified to make a more original game. Zellers would put out 18 games for the Atari 2600, and how do you think Atari took that? The answer is not well. They didn’t take it well. Zellers was forced to stop selling them, but not before some started to spread around. 

If you go to the readiysteadiy YouTube channel, you can see some of these bootleg games that included titles like Sea Hawk, Scuba Diver, Turmoil, and Ocean City Defender. I would love to know how this whole arrangement came to be. Could you even imagine a major retailer making a deal to sell a knowingly counterfeit version of a major product today? I can’t even begin to think of the legal nightmare that would come of it. But maybe they just didn’t know and thought they found a great discount supplier. And this would also kind of make sense.

Zellers was the place to get low-cost items, and why wouldn’t that include video games–which are often very pricey? According to Retroist.com, a great sale price in 1981 for a copy of a big-name game such as Asteroids was about $27.88. Converted for today, that’s around $90. Yikes. So, if that was too rich for your blood, why not pick up a copy of “Earth Attack” for just $6.99? 

The readiysteadiy YouTube channel actually reached out to the Hudson’s Bay Company to ask them if they knew Zellers was selling pirated games. They confirmed that there were 18 games made in Taiwan in the 80s but they have no more info as they have very limited records regarding this entire issue. Ironically, these bootleg games now sell for a decent amount. I went on eBay and found some of these Zellers bootlegs including “Inca Gold” for $96, “Farmer Dan” for $60, and “Laser Volley,” for $50–plus $22 for shipping. That’s how they get you…

Was the 1980s the Height of Retail Success? 

In the 80s, Zellers was Canada’s largest retail chain. But during the early 1980s, things in all forms of retail grew at a slower pace.

For example, it was hard for fashion trends to happen overnight. This is commonplace today, but in the 80s; It could take years for styles to spread across the country. But then an upstart music channel called MTV came along. Now, we could see what our favorite artists were wearing and seek out the same items within a few days. Pop culture trends had not really moved this fast before. Fashion from magazines could take months and months before it got to customers’ eyes, but Madonna could wear something in a new video, and the next day, people were lined up outside the mall waiting to get in to recreate her look. 

So were the 1980s the height of retail success? Well, it may have been close, because here’s something that’s often forgotten about how big 1980s retail was–the entire family used to go to the mall together. In my family, a trip to the mall was a big outing, and I hadn’t really thought about that until now. Families could get to the mall and then go their separate ways, each finding stores that catered to them before meeting up to eat at the mall food court, which, again, had something for everyone.

This created an extremely lucrative era that would continue into the 1990s. According to information from the University of Pennsylvania, in the 1980s, adults would visit an average of 7 different stores when they went out to shop. Today, it’s just 1.3 stores. Shoppers today are back in their cars in around 76 minutes. In the 80s, it would be hours on end at the mall–if not most of the day. You may remember getting dropped off at the mall and not picked up until later that night after you had shopped, hung out, eaten, then seen a movie. 

It was our move to the suburbs that probably explains this drastic change in our retail habits. As people moved out to the suburbs in the 1960s, it took a while for retail stores to play catch up. People needed retail options in the suburbs, and it just wasn’t happening. This was still the case going into the early 80s, as there just wasn’t much out there. But it would catch up and this explains the explosion of shopping centers in the 1980s. In the 70s, in the U.S., there were only about 11,000 shopping centers. By the end of the 80s, and going into the 90s; there were 36,500. There was now one shopping center for every 4,600 people. Suburban supply and demand had now come into balance. 

But this is when prices dropped and big box retailers appeared. They could open stores in giant warehouses, keep all their inventory out, and could now offer lower prices. This is when Walmart made its move. They opened the first Sam’s Club warehouse in 1983 and their first Wal-Mart Supercenter in 1988. The Supercenters would eventually take over much of the retail landscape. Other smaller stores–and even malls–eventually could not compete. 

Other big retailers followed suit. Home Depot started opening its big box stores in 1986. As did Staples and Office Depot. Sports Authority came along in 1987. Ikea would open its first American store in 1985. These types of stores are called “category killers.” They do this by offering the cheaper pricing options in massive locations where you can get almost any item. The goal with these places was to “focus on a deep, but narrow, range of products.” Everything that made department stores popular was decimated by places like the Wal-Mart Supercenter, where you could now even get groceries. That wasn’t exactly possible at a Tower Records. 

Big box retailers still dominate the retail landscape today, but not exactly like they used to. In 1995, a small company thought it might be smart to sell books on the internet. This was, of course, Amazon, and it set in motion the beginning of retail change forever. 

When Did Things Start to Fade Away?

But what happened with a store like Zellers? They are a good example of the changes during this retail shift from the 80s to the 90s and then into the 2000s. As we moved away from the malls and to the big box stores, it became more challenging for previous forms of retail to keep up. Giant companies like Walmart had seen the success of Zellers in Canada in the 80s and 90s and made an aggressive move to swoop in on their territory. Before that, Zellers had been acquiring other companies like Woodward’s and Tower/Bonimart. Hudson’s Bay then acquired the Canadian division of Kmart. 

In the mid-2000s, Zellers was losing money. A New York-based company took them over. They didn’t buy the chain, but In 2011, Target then purchased the lease agreements for all the Zellers stores. Eventually, 133 locations would be converted into Targets. There would still be a few locations, but As of 2013, the Zellers chain was no more.

Target had now come to Canada. If you want to learn a chaotic retail story–in case you’ve never heard it before– check out the story of Target Canada. It’s one of the biggest expansion failures ever. After spending billions to create a Canadian presence, every location would be closed less than two years later, costing them billions more. 

Zellers Makes its Return

Nearly a decade after they closed their last stores, Zellers looks to be making a comeback. Starting in early 2023, Hudson’s Bay will open Zellers locations inside select Hudson Bay stores. To keep in tune with modern retail, Zellers will also debut a new e-commerce website. The company knows not to ignore a digital presence, and this looks to be a core part of its relaunch. It also may be a great time for a relaunch–and a smart move to go back to its roots and promote itself as a discount retailer. 

During a time of inflation, the quest for the cheapest options is more important than ever. And in a place where “the lowest price is the law,” Zellers looks to be that option. Or at least a recognizable option from the past. 

And make no mistake: this move is all about nostalgia. The company has stated that the store will offer “a digital-first shopping journey that taps into the nostalgia of the brand.” If you can combine lower prices–and a nostalgic memory–you may have an excellent combination on your hands. Adam Powell–Chief Business Officer of Zellers–has said that “We know how special Zellers is in the hearts and minds of people in Canada.”

The relaunch of a store like Zellers interestingly combines modern retail and the memories of yesteryear. They are taking the nostalgia of a beloved brand but combining it with a focus on e-commerce. E-commerce is something that didn’t even exist in our minds in the 80s. How could you buy something over a computer? That could only happen in a movie like Tron or Bladerunner. But the resurgence of this store is such an interesting collision of the past and future. 

Will this work? We can only wait and see. In the 1980s, we had some discount chains, but nowhere near what’s available today. Back in the 80s, department stores were the primary option, but today, besides Amazon, we also have Dollarama, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Giant Tiger, and various other versions. And there are even options beyond that such as Facebook Marketplace. In the 80s, the words “Facebook” and “online marketplace” would mean absolutely nothing. But options like this also speak to our changes in communication and consumerism. 

Final Thoughts

This site is obviously all about nostalgia and what a powerful thing that is. Nostalgia is that yearning for the past, and to get even deeper into the true meaning of the word, it’s about wanting to return to that place. Nostalgia is also something that’s considered to be painful, like an old wound, and it creates a state of being homesick. Ultimately, it’s about desire. A desire to go back to something, 

This sensation is so powerful that giant companies will put millions of dollars into harnessing it. It’s said that advertising is not about selling a specific good or service, but ‌about selling us a feeling. Our attachment to various products is as much about the memories we associate with them.

Every year at Christmas, I always make sure to buy Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Coca-Cola, and M&Ms. It took me a while to realize I still instinctively do this because these were the things we had at Christmastime growing up. We weren’t allowed a lot of soft drinks throughout the year, but we could have them at Christmas. And this is probably why I feel an attachment to those brands. I continue to buy those things to this day and that’s the goal of advertising: to sell us that feeling, create those memories that stay with us forever, and hopefully make us lifelong customers.

Giant corporations will leave nothing to chance and clearly the last thing they want to do is waste money. But a company like Hudson’s Bay understands this nostalgia and desire people have to return to a store that is a part of their past. They would not spend millions of dollars on a whim but recognize the power nostalgia has. And this is obviously bigger than just a Canadian store named Zellers: it’s about trying to capture that homesickness for things we used to have. In the case of Zellers, they are taking us on a time machine to the past and banking on that nostalgia. 

No matter what country, state, province, city, or town you grew up in, you have a store like Zellers that are no longer with you. If I can throw out a few more specific Canadian examples, I could also mention Simpsons, Eatons, Jumbo Video, and the Pop Shoppe. In the UK, that may be Woolworths, Dixons, or JJB Sports. In Australia, it may be Venture, Clint’s Crazy Bargains, or Brashs. And it’s not just bigger corporate stores, you no doubt have smaller examples of simple Mom and Pop stores that you have powerful memories of. It might even be a small chain of stores that were specific to your city.

As easy as it is to decry commerce, marketing, capitalism, and consumerism, many brands and stores do have a place in our hearts. Some of these stores from our past even seem somewhat vintage and charming, even though they were rooted in that “evil consumerism.” So, is there money in nostalgia? Some financial experts have said that you can’t take nostalgia to the bank.

I think a company like Netflix would disagree–especially after the success of Stranger Things. General Mills may also disagree because of the successful releases of classic Monster Cereals such as Count Chocula and Frankenberry. When Nintendo released its NES Classic Edition in 2016–they sold out nearly immediately, selling over 2 million of them. They followed this up with the SNES classic mini system and the two combined have sold over 10 million units. This amounts to sales of over $600 million. The Atari Flashback 2 console sold 860,000 units. The book “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline was a New York Times best-seller and was on the list for 56 weeks. The movie adaptation made nearly $600 million worldwide.

Maybe nostalgia does sell…

But when it comes to retail, does nostalgia work? Is the curiosity factor of a beloved brand enough to attract customers? As always, the consumer will determine their success–or failure. In the 80s we didn’t have as many retail options vying for our attention. A company like Zellers is hoping that a recognizable brand will be enough to catch the consumer’s eye in a sea of distractions.