It’s hard to remember the Canadian retail landscape of thirty years ago.
It was a world before Amazon and online shopping.
A world in which Wal-Mart ceased to exist but Zellers stood as a reliable, respectable brick-and-mortar to purchase everything from dish soap to dog food to Zeddy (I had one)—everything, that is, but extensive groceries. Traditional supermarkets still had that role.
Malls were more of a destination too; “retail parks”, basically unenclosed shopping centres that force vehicular reliance rather than pedestrian accessibility, were relatively unheard of. Shopping in the eighties/nineties definitely felt more personal.
The closest shopping centre to my childhood home was reflective of the middle class neighbourhood I grew up in. It contained not just a SAAN, not just a Bargain Harolds, not just a Bi-Way —but all three! These Canadian-owned and operated retailers sold a variety of economical, house-brand goods in a condensed space that could be unkempt but always interesting to rummage through. I miss these places … even though there was a stigma attached to them at the time of my life. In high school, the insult “where’d you get your shirt? Bi-Way?” acted as social cull. I remember my father purchased a pair of tan suede booties for me at the store - shoes that I loved - only to be shamed when wearing them to school the next day. In retrospect, rather than lament my family’s perceived socio-economic status, I really should have questioned how the other kids KNEW I even got them there in the first place.
Because we all shopped there, of course.
Heck, I still shop at Giant Tiger which is the closest thing to these retailers today.
Consumers Distributing also formed habit. Perhaps ahead of it’s time, it has since been called “internet shopping before the internet”. Like other retailers that distributed catalogues to every postal code, retailers like Eaton’s (RIP) and Sears (RIP), Consumers Distributing used this method to showcase their goods; unlike other retailers though, their storefront was pretty barebones. Customers would have to manually fill out a form for the item they wished to purchase and have it brought out from storage at the back (often not knowing if the item they coveted was even in stock). There was a Consumer’s Distributing near the supermarket my family shopped at and my mother would occasionally let me pick out a toy that she would pick up while running this errand. My chances of actually bringing it home were 50/50.
In the decades since stores like this became a memory, the neighbourhood I grew up in has also changed. Reflective of its affordability and openness to diversity, businesses catering to the newly landed immigrant population dot the landscape. There’s even a medium-sized Asian grocery store that carries all the obscure junk food I like to pick up when actually traveling there. This local retail evolution is exciting and brings back the personal touch I so covet. One that can’t be found in Wal-Mart or on the internet.
Now if only they’d bring back Zeddy.