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Canada: Canadian department discount store Zellers hopes to lure shoppers with nostalgia

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

Zellers, a once-popular, low-cost department store in Canada, was forced to shut its doors 10 years ago. It will soon make a comeback, with hopes that shoppers' nostalgia for the brand will revive it.

Any Zellers location was easy to spot: a big, bold red logo with the department store's name marked the entrance. Inside, the lowest price was "the law", as its tagline once suggested, with aisles full of merchandise selling everything from clothing to sports equipment. Most Zellers stores closed in 2013, save for a few. By 2020, all Zellers locations were shuttered.

The company 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. Some said they hoped the return of Zellers would mean the return of competitive prices on everyday goods, particularly at a time when high inflation has pinched the wallets of many.

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.

Nostalgia provides an anchor for people, a spokesman said.

Does nostalgia marketing work and 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.

The Volkswagen Beetle a car that was once discontinued in Germany in 1978 due to its outdated technology, but that was successfully reincarnated for years as the 'New Beetle' in the late 1990s because of the sentimentality people attached to it as a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. Also, the comeback of the iconic Ford Mustang was a big success.

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

"Ten years ago, Zellers wasn't viable," he said, adding the store fell short in the face of Walmart's expansion and the surge of online shopping giant Amazon. Walmart thrived, Mr Soberman said, because its enormous size gave it the ability to offer consumers a high volume of merchandise at a competitively low price. Meanwhile, Zellers stores began looking "rundown" and "outdated" in comparison by the time of their closure, he said.

Department stores on the whole are also facing a significant decline in North America, largely due to the rise of online shopping. In 2011, there were 8,600 department store locations in the US, compared to 6,297 in 2020. Mr Soberman said products often need a "unique selling point" to succeed, and he is unsure if Zellers can deliver that just yet. He added its revival may only resonate with people who are old enough to have fond memories of the brand.

Target's move into old Zellers locations in Canada has been called a "massive failure" after the American company pulled out from the Canadian market in less than two years - partly due to distribution issues that often left shelves barren and that offered products at a higher price than what they were being sold for in the US. Target's exit was met by mixed reaction, but some took it as a sign that US-based companies don't understand Canadian shoppers.

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