THUNDER BAY – The era of the traditional department store is changing drastically. Have you been to the Sears Canada closing out sale? In Thunder Bay, the Sears store in Intercity Mall is full of people looking for bargains and deals. On the door, the signs say that everything is 30-50% off. There should be good deals to be had.
At Sears, honestly put walking around the store, it is to walk-around like visiting a terminal patient in the hospital. None of the staff seem happy, which I guess is understandable. Employees right now are transitioning from work to uncertainty.
But the deals offered, are frankly not all that great. Items at Sears that are marked down are in many cases cheaper at other stores. Just across Fort William Road at Canadian Tire there are similar items on sale that are 15-20 percent lower in price than at Sears in the closing out sale.
Online, shoppers using Amazon or eBay can find better deals. Honestly put over the past couple of years, based on the contrast between shopping online and Sears, one could argue that in many cases the online process is friendlier. Sears management seemed to have forgotten that friendly service is one of the key components to success in retail sales.
Retail has been a market in serious transition in Canada. Target came to Canada and failed in a hurry. Years ago Eaton’s stores were major market anchors at virtually every shopping mall. Thunder Bay shoppers also have the easy ability to order from the United States, ship their order to Ryden’s Border Store, drive down, have lunch, fill the tank with cheaper American gasoline, and save money.
Thunder Bay is in many ways in a unique position in the marketplace. Duluth Minnesota is just under a four-hour drive south. There consumers have long traveled to take in the shopping and bargains. Even when the Canadian dollar was being called the “Northern Peso” Thunder Bay shoppers flocked to Duluth on every long weekend.
Thunder Bay shoppers also have the easy ability to order from the United States, ship their order to Ryden’s Border Store, drive down, have lunch, fill the tank with cheaper American gasoline, and save money.
The reality for retail is there is still a major opportunity for small business.
Retail isn’t Dead
Retail isn’t dead, but retail is in the midst of a major transition.
For Thunder Bay, our city is so close to the United States that online shopping and taking advantage of the often free shipping to United States addresses is very common. Then think of how many people head south for their shopping trips – and how few from Duluth head north to Thunder Bay?
There are real opportunities lost as those dollars head south.
However, with Sears, the iconic brands, Craftsman, Kenmore, and the seemingly lifetime of dependability will end soon. It will likely end up with a lot of stock ending up in the hands of a liquidator – the discounts at the local Sears stores across the country heading toward the busiest retail shopping season of the year are in too many cases higher than their competitors.
It is easy to feel for the employees who will lose their jobs. It is harder to feel sad for the top management at Sears who seemingly charted the path to the closing of this longtime and iconic store in Canada. Sears sadly isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last department store to disappear.
There are real lessons for retailers to emulate. Having fair prices, friendly staff, and a good selection are paramount in retail today, but the lesson being offered by online shopping is that there has to be more. The lesson taught by Walmart starts with having someone say hello as you enter the store. The lesson taught by Sears is you have to listen to and learn from your customer.
It might sound very simple, but from recent experiences at Sears in Thunder Bay, there were many of those basic lessons simply not learned.
In the United States, Target, Walmart, and Amazon through Whole Foods are battling it out for increased market share. In Canada of all of the traditional large-scale national department stores, only the Hudson’s Bay Company is still standing.
The opportunity perhaps is for the smaller retail specialty shops who can carefully choose their place in the market. Thunder Bay could be a hub for many of these small businesses. All it takes is the effort and some added encouragement from all three levels of government.
That can happen.