03/16/2012 05:12 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Discount retailer Fields to close

A major retailer in western Canada is calling it quits, leaving several small towns with no place to buy basic goods.

Fields Stores, which has 141 locations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and the Northwest Territories, will close its entire operation by Fall 2012. Twenty-six stores in Ontario were closed at the end of February.

Fields sells discount clothes, groceries, toys and housewares, and are mostly in rural areas.

In a statement, owner of the chain, the Hudson's Bay Company, said the closures are "a strategic decision ... to focus on growing our other banners: The Bay, Lord & Taylor and Home Outfitters."

"We're devastated that the store is closing," customer Lennie McFadyen told CBC News outside the store in Millet, Alta., a town of about 2,100 people south of Edmonton.

"It's not only a place that we can go to buy what we need, but it's a meeting place."

In Claresholm, Alta., about 1½ hours south of Calgary, owners of other businesses are worried about the domino effects of losing the chain.

"You just don't have that many people downtown then," said women's clothing store owner, Hanna Hoffman.

"If they're going to have to go out of town then they're going to do everything out of town."

Town begs retailers to step in

In Millet, residents and officials have written to HBC and other potential buyers, pleading with them to keep the store open or transfer ownership.

"We kind of have a bitter taste in our mouths," said Millet town councillor Pat Garrett.

Garrett said the loss of Fields puts a dent in the town's plan to lure younger families.

"All the smaller towns and all the smaller communities are hurting. And in order to keep the people here, we need the small businesses."

McFadyen has written a letter to the Bargain Shop, which will fold 10 Fields Stores into its chain in the coming months. McFadyen hopes the discount chain will consider the same move for Millet.

"We need it. We need it in this town," she said.

Chain's origins in Alta., B.C.

The roots of Fields begin in Vegreville, Alta., where founder Joseph Segal was born. The entrepreneur moved to Edmonton as a child, settled in Vancouver after serving in World War II. He opened the first Fields in 1950 on West Hastings St.

Segal's focus on discount family clothing worked, and he expanded quickly over the next two decades, acquiring several other retailers, including a few Bay stores in interior B.C. By 1971, Fields expanded into Alberta, opening a department store in Edmonton.

In 1976, Fields bought 50 percent of the Zellers chain. HBC bought Zellers two years later, a purchase which included Fields. Segal left the company in 1979 to pursue other business interests.

According to a history of Fields on the HBC website, the parent corporation considered selling Fields during the recession in the 1980s. But the article, written in 2007, concluded that, "As HBC's established entry in the extreme value retail sector, Fields is now poised to bring that proven concept to the rest of the country."

HBC is now close to divorcing itself entirely from its discount retail assets, having sold 189 Zellers locations to American company Target. HBC spokesperson Tiffany Bourre told CBC News the remaining 84 Zellers locations will stay open for now, while the company "considers its options for the brand."

New player may step in

Relief may be on the way for some towns who rely on Fields Stores, as HBC recently signed a tentative deal to sell 37 locations to a company called FHC. Under the deal, FHC would keep the Fields name intact.

Bourre said it is possible FHC will acquire an additional 22 Fields Stores, but would not say where those would be.

Millet is not the list, but councillor Pat Garrett said the town will continue to pursue other retailers to take over.

"We're just gonna keep trying and we're just gonna keep asking."

Fields locations that may be saved: