THEY COULDN’T even get the sliding-glass doors fully open before the shoppers began pouring into Sears on Thursday morning.
Two hundred people, including a woman plunked in a lawn chair at the front of the line, had queued up at the department store’s inside entrance at the Hillside mall.
Some steely-eyed bargain hunters streamed straight to the sales desk in the appliances section, buying floor models of fridges and ovens they had scouted earlier. Others drifted about the store aimlessly, grumbling that while 20 per cent off signs were everywhere, the half-price items they expected were hard to find.
The complaint was shrugged off by those whose experience with department store closings — Target, Zellers — had taught them not to expect deep discounts right off the bat. Sears says stores will close as they’re emptied of inventory, and no location will be open after Jan. 21, but the Victoria outlet could be among the last to shut. “They’re not going to give it away on the first day,” said shopper Ken Kerr.
Victoria’s Kerr was typical of many Thursday. He was there not just to find a deal but to say goodbye to a cultural touchstone. “It’s too bad. Sears has been around a long time. It’s been a good store,” he said. “I remember coming here and getting a winter jacket with my dad when I was a kid.” He bought his first pair of Adidas there, too.
“It’s a shame to see it go,” said customer Dianne McAmmond. She felt particularly sorry for the staff, who spent Thursday dutifully doing a disappearing job, just like the crew as the Titanic sank. “They have to put on a good face,” said McAmmond, who spent 17 years working for the old Woodward’s chain.
That last name (the mention of Woodward’s still mists the eyes of born-and-bred British Columbians) is a reminder that Sears isn’t the first castle to crumble.
Keeping up with department store acquisitions, mergers and deaths can be like trying to follow a game of three-card monte. The Mayfair mall Woodward’s was reborn as a Bay in 1993. After Eaton’s went under in 1999, its assets were bought by Sears, which, after operating stores under its own name, then sold some of them to the Bay, which is how Victoria’s Eaton Centre became the Bay Centre in 2003.
Kmart stores morphed into Zellers in 1998 after its Canadian stores were bought by Zellers’ parent company, Hudson’s Bay Co., which had completed its purchase of the Zellers chain in 1981 (follow all that?). Zellers, in turn, faded away after being swallowed by Target in 2011. Target was the Anthony Scaramucci of department stores, arriving in Canada amid much fanfare in 2013 before flaming out in 2015, closing all 133 of its Canadian outlets — including those at the Hillside and Tillicum malls — in what turned out to be the most disastrous U.S. invasion since the Bay of Pigs.
The end of 65-year-old Sears feels different. (The marriage of Canada’s Simpson stores and America’s Sears gave us the first Simpsons-Sears in 1952, simplified to Sears in 1973.) The chain once had a strong identity, was synonymous with Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, good value, a solid return policy. Sears was like middle Canada: nothing flashy, it was reliable and reputable.
And, of course, it had the original version of online shopping, the Sears Wish Book. Deb Malone, looking to replace a just-deceased microwave oven on Thursday, remembered the catalogue as being the only way to shop Canadian when growing up on air force bases in Europe. Rick Tucker, eyeing the tools on the second floor, recalled another reason to use the catalogue: In small-town Haida Gwaii, ordering from outside was the only way to shop for his wife in secret. “Otherwise, if she saw something missing from the shelf of the local store, she’d know what she was getting for Christmas.”
But the catalogue gave way to online. Canadian Tire’s Mastercraft tools vied with Craftsman. Big box stores sold the same sort of goods as Sears, cheaper. Laugh at the People of Walmart videos if you like, but that low-cost behemoth sucks the blood out of the competition. Sears faded until it became, as CBC’s Rick Mercer said Tuesday, “the building you walk through to get to the mall.”
There’s no word on what will fill Sears’ Hillside space, which could take a while to empty, anyway. Elsewhere, Sears might close stores and consolidate stock in nearby locations as inventory dwindles, but that’s harder to do on Vancouver Island, where only Victoria and Nanaimo have outlets, a company spokesman said. That’s why the local store could be among the last to close. Gift cards and loyalty points can be redeemed during liquidation, but extended warranties turned into Cinderella’s pumpkin on Wednesday.
It’s all hard to believe for those who grew up with Sears as a permanent presence. “Here’s a dynasty going down,” McAmmond said. “It’s sad.”
© Copyright Times Colonist
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.