This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada, which closed in 2021.
The Blog

Working at Zellers Taught Me Everything I Know

You never know where you'll learn important life lessons. When I heard that Zellers was being bought by Target, I suddenly remembered all the things I had learnt while working there. It was my first job, but someone there taught me something that's sticks with me still to do this day...

With the sale of Zellers by HBC to Target, and many Zellers stores winding down business, many memories of my first job came back to me.

Sometimes you don't realize where you learn certain lessons until something like this jogs your memory. I remember my manager teaching me to work smart, not hard. I was moving free weights from one end to another end in the sporting goods department, one heavy box at a time. Then he said "Come here, Larry," took me to the front to get a shopping cart and said load it up and roll it over. I remembered that lesson. "Work smart, not hard," he said.

More important, the company itself wrote the book on Canadian retail marketing in the 1980s. Advertising slogans like "The lowest price is the law" and "Only you know how little you paid" drew people to their stores in droves. They knew the sociology of the time. People in the 80s were still very brand conscious, but also wanted to save money. These two slogans spoke to those needs and connected with Canadians.

Then came what was the most remarkable, brilliant and most copied marketing idea of my lifetime. Club Z was its name. Customers signed up to Club Z and received points based on how many dollars they spent, then they could order items for free from a catalogue. Sound familiar? This was cutting edge stuff in the late 80s. Now I can't think of a single major retailer that doesn't have some type of customer rewards program. Canadian Tire money was first, but Club Z took it to a whole new level. Not only were customers rewarded, they also had to register so that their purchases could be tracked and direct mail pieces could be sent. Canadian Tire money accumulates in the glove box.

Here is a very dated commercial from 1988 during the origin of Club Z, making the customer feel special. A classic ad strategy.

And here is one of the first from 1986. Note the classic advertising theme of offering an exclusive upper crust feeling:

There are many marketing lessons to be learned from studying the Zellers marketing plan and retail success from the 80s. Ironically, the success of Zellers at convincing the Canadian public that you didn't need to spend big dollars to feel like you were upper crust, high class, or of high quality took the wind out of the sails and sales of the Hudson's Bay Company, Canada's oldest company and parent company of Zellers. Another high end retailer, Eaton's, was not able to adjust to this and went bankrupt in 1999. This was a direct result of Zellers marketing and advertising strategy and its ability to change public perception and shopping habits. They shifted the paradigm and other companies were not able to adjust. As I type this today, Zellers itself has now fallen victim to another shifting paradigm and now huge U.S.-based retailers are dominating the Canadian marketplace leading to the sale to Target. I look forward to seeing how Target will imprint itself on Canadian retail.

As a small business owner or manager, you must study and learn from the leading businesses in your industry. If you are in retail, follow what Walmart and Target will be doing and use it to your advantage. Large advertisers like these can change customer buying habits and introduce buzz words into society that you can use to enhance your advertising. Let the companies with the dollars establish these trends and "catch the wave.""Work smart, not hard". Until next time, I'm Larry "The Ad Man."

Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact