It was sad to hear that the Zellers name will soon disappear from the Canada’s retail landscape. Especially tough will be the closure of the Bay Downtown location less than two years after bringing a large, national retailer back to the core.
Zellers, a Depression-era success story, has been around for 80 years and has a couple of interesting Winnipeg connections.
The chain’s roots go back to U.S. retailer Schulte-United. In 1928 they entered the Canadian market by buying out a four outlet, Ontario-based, junior department store chain owned by Walter P. Zeller. The following year they opened over a dozen stores under the Schulte-United name in Eastern Canada and in June 1929 a single outlet in Winnipeg at 346 Portage Avenue.
In 1931 the chain went bankrupt and Zeller, a Schulte-United vice president at the time, bought out their Eastern assets and re-branded them Zeller’s, (the apostrophe was dropped in the 1970s.)
In 1933 the chain returned to Winnipeg and, thanks to a near standstill in new retail activity in the city during the Depression, were able to move back to the familiar space on the main floor and basement of 346 Portage Avenue.
Winnipeg’s Zeller’s store opened on September 30, 1933 under manager J. R. Young who was transferred from Port William.
For Walter Zeller Winnipeg was familiar ground. He lived here for a number of years around 1910, (it appears he was a bookkeeper for the Woolworth chain.) He married Nettie Evelyn Lewis in September 1913 at Holy Trinity Church on Donald Street.
During World War II Zeller dedicated himself to the war effort and worked in numerous war-related positions without salary. He was at times executive assistant to War Services Minister Joseph Thorson, chair of the wartime Tourist Advisory Committee, chair of a subcommittee on economic development with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a director of the War Savings Committee.
Sadly, that war took one of his two sons in 1944.
When the war was over Zeller turned his attention back to business. There were new locations and the expansion of old ones. In 1946 the Portage Avenue store was revamped and expanded to take over the top floor of the building.
Conscious of the need for Canadians to have quality, stable jobs to help rebuild the economy, he introduced a profit sharing scheme for full time employees in 1945, (executives were excluded from the plan.) It was a scheme based on the operating profit of of the individual store that they worked at, the pre-tax net profit of the chain and years of service. In its first year, employees could earn up to $226 each, (about $3,000 in 2012 dollars.)
In 1955 Zeller stepped down as president of the company. When he died in August 1957 his retail empire had grown from 13 stores with 350 employees to 62 stores with 3,526 employees.
In 1959 Zellers opened a second Winnipeg location at Polo Park Shopping Centre. In 1972 the downtown location closed but by then they had added Fort Richmond Plaza, Northdale Shopping Centre and Westwood Shopping Centre.
In 1980, under HBC, locations were added at Northgate Plaza, Grant Park Plaza and Nairn at Lagimodiere Boulevard. The last store added was the Bay basement location, just over a block away from where their first Winnipeg store opened in 1933.
It appears that seven was the maximum number of Winnipeg Zellers stores at any one time. At the chain’s peak in 1999 there were nearly 300 stores across the country.
In 2011 HBC sold 189 Zellers stores to American retailer Target. Locally, that included Kildonan Place, Southdale, Grant Park and Polo Park, (plus Shoppers Mall in Brandon.) HBC retained Northgate, Fort Richmond and the Bay Downtown.
For more Zellers history check out the HBC Zellers page
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