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TERRENCE MCEACHERN: End of Sears is end of high-end department stores

Shoppers enter and leave a Sears retail store in Toronto on Thursday. The company began its liquidation sales Friday at its stores across the country as it prepares to shut its doors for good after 65 years. CANADIAN PRESS PHOTO
Shoppers enter and leave a Sears retail store in Toronto on Thursday. The company began its liquidation sales Friday at its stores across the country as it prepares to shut its doors for good after 65 years. CANADIAN PRESS PHOTO

If you’re under 40, this may be a bit of a history lesson.

Because there once was a time when large and diverse creatures freely roamed the land, only to fall into extinction.

Of course, I’m talking about high-end department store chains (you thought I was talking about dinosaurs, didn’t you?).

The most recent case is Sears Canada, who’s life is coming to an end after an Ontario court recently approved the company’s request to liquidate, meaning roughly 130 remaining stores are shutting down and 12,000 people are out of work.

It joins Eaton’s (mainly) but, to a lesser extent (and not so high end), The Met and Woolco.

Of course, there are department store chains today, but let’s call them 2.0. They’re not quite the same for a lot of reasons, including lower quality brand name items.  

When news broke on Oct. 10 that Sears was looking to pull the plug, I headed to the Charlottetown store’s parking lot to get people’s reactions.

Some said they usually go off Island to shop. Others said they shop online. All said they didn’t shop at Sears very much anymore. But, all said the company’s demise was unfortunate.

I feel the same way. It’s unfortunate. But why? Why is this different than any other business or store going under?

I think that for a lot of us in the over-40 crowd, the company’s end taps into our nostalgic side.

Sears and Eaton’s were a part of our Christmas experience growing up.

Each year, my family in Moncton was like many in Canada – waiting with anticipation for the Eaton’s and Sears Christmas catalogues to arrive. For kids, those large, clunky books offered a sneak preview of the toys we wanted for Christmas.  

The books sat on a coffee table, occasionally disappearing and reappearing with page corners bent to mark a spot.

Then, on a Saturday close to Christmas, we would pack into the family car and head to the shopping malls. It was always neat to arrive at Eaton’s or Sears and see how the stores were beautifully decorated for Christmas. Each year, they outdid themselves.

As kids, we would break away from our parents to shop, only to meet up later for lunch with presents poorly hidden underneath our jackets.

We weren’t in a hurry. We made a day of it.

These were some of the memories I had standing in the Sears parking lot that day.

I also wondered if Christmas shopping 20 years from now would evolve into families gathered around a computer buying presents with the click of a mouse.  

I raised this with Jim Cormier of the Retail Council of Canada.    

Although he notes that online shopping is taking off in Canada, he isn’t buying into my vision of the future with families Christmas shopping around a computer.

Cormier still sees a place for “bricks and mortar” retail outlets, and points out that some online retailers have actually made their way into physical stores.

Consumers still crave that in-store retail experience, he explains. The key is meshing online with “bricks and mortar.” Successful stores will have merchandise on hand but also sales associates armed with tablets ready to show customers what they can order online.

So, maybe things aren’t that bleak after all.

And, who knows? Maybe somebody will fill the void left by Sears with a quality brand driven department store chain 3.0 that better meshes online with an in-store experience.

Still, it’s unfortunate to see Sears go. Of course, we’ll move on the same way we moved on from Eaton’s.

But for many of us, the end of Sears is the end of an era.

 

terrence.mceachern@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/terry_mcn

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