Nostalgia For Sale: Zellers Returns To Canada

by Kevin Burton

   On memory lane the strolling is peaceful and mighty fine.

   On memory lane there is never a cold wind blowing to turn your head around, the cold wind that James Taylor sings about in a song.

   So could it be that Canadian retailer Zellers is making the right decision, reviving a retail brand that was done in by Amazon and Walmart in 2013? 

   Found this story by reporter Nadine Yousif on the BBC under the headline, “Canadian discount store Zellers hopes to lure shoppers with nostalgia.”

   If you’re selling nostalgia, I’m in, or at the very least, listening.  Somebody in charge of research for Zellers obviously thinks a lot of people are listening, enough people for the department store chain to have a second go.

   If you told me I could somehow go to the IGA store where I bought baseball cards as a kid, I would start figuring out how to make that happen. The Arthur Treacher’s, where my father bought me fish and chips? Yep, I’m there.

   The BBC article asks, can a business be profitable based on nostalgia alone?

   “Any Zellers location was easy to spot: a big, bold red logo with the department store’s name marked the entrance,” Yousif writes. “Inside, the lowest price was ‘the law,’, as its tagline once suggested, with aisles full of merchandise selling everything from clothing to sports equipment. There was even a diner, where shoppers would stop to devour one of its famous hot chicken sandwiches.”

   “In 1980s Stratford, Ontario – a city of around 32,000 people west of Toronto – Zellers was where people would spend their Saturday afternoon, Stewart Reynolds recalled.”

   “Reynolds, a Canadian comedian who is also known by his stage name Brittlestar, said the retailer provided ordinary shoppers a sense of ‘bounty and abundance.’

   “I could go to a Zellers and be like, ‘it’s fun to be here, and I can afford almost anything here,’ which was great,” he said.

   “The Zellers Reynolds recalls was at its prime – but like UK high-street mainstay Woolworths or K-Mart in the US, Zellers struggled to compete in an increasingly challenging marketplace.

    “Most Zellers stores closed in 2013, save for a few. By 2020, all Zellers locations were shuttered,” Yousif wrote.

   “But like Top Gun and Spider-Man, everyone loves a reboot. Hudson’s Bay Company – which acquired the brand in 1973 – said it plans to revive the discount retailer, with hopes that the fond memories Canadians have of the brand will bring shoppers back,” Yousif wrote.

   “When announcing the revival in August, Hudson’s Bay promised ‘a digital-first shopping journey that taps into the nostalgia of the brand,’ adding it will include brick-and-mortar Zellers stores in some of its existing higher-end department stores, The Bay, by early 2023.

   “Zellers was born in 1928, right before the Great Depression, with four locations in Ontario. By 1999, Zellers had grown to 350 stores in Canada.”

   The growth of Walmart and online shopping, however, had hurt Zellers, and by 2011, the brand was forced to sell its remaining 189 locations to Target, another American chain that was looking to set up shop north of the border.

Still, decades after its peak, many Canadians remember Zellers fondly.

   “ For Reynolds, the nostalgia was powerful enough to inspire a tune about his adoration for the affordable retail chain in 2020, in a tongue-in-cheek ‘love song for Zellers.’.

   “I should have known you’d break my heart and leave me alone with Walmart,” he sang. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.”

   “The song resonated online, and resurfaced this summer amid other tributes from Canadians in reaction to news of Zellers’ revival.

    Some said they hoped the return of Zellers would mean the return of competitive prices on everyday goods. Others wondered if Zellers would bring back fixtures of their younger years, like the cherished teddy bear Zeddy, which was used to promote the store’s toy department in the 1980s before becoming its official mascot.

   Nostalgia is a powerful tool for igniting positive emotions of the past that are strong enough to get buy-in from consumers, according to marketing and psychology experts. But are sentimental feelings enough to make people spend their money on a product or at a store?

   David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto, said a few companies have been successful in bringing back a discontinued product using nostalgia.

   Soberman named Volkswagen’s iconic Beetle as an example – a car that was once discontinued in Germany in 1978 due to its outdated technology, but that was successfully reincarnated for years as the ‘New Beetle’ in the late 1990s because of the sentimentality people attached to it as a figure of 1960s hippie culture.”

   “But for a department store like Zellers, nostalgia can be a tougher sell, Soberman argued.

   “Ten years ago, Zellers wasn’t viable,” Soberman said.

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