Canada had a much richer representation of department stores 20 years ago. Some of the better known brands that disappeared were Eaton’s, which went bankrupt in 1999; Kmart and Simpsons, which were acquired by the Bay; Towers, bought by Zellers; Woolco, which was acquired by Walmart. Also gone: F.W. Woolworth, Metropolitan, Miracle Mart, Gambles, Biway, Ayres, Marks & Spencer, Woodward’s and SAAN. Many of these banners, including Eaton’s and Simpsons, were Canadian-owned. Today, this market is dominated by four American-owned chains: The Bay, Sears, Walmart and Zellers. The Bay, which owns Zellers, was a public Canadian company until its takeover by a U.S.-based shareholder in 2006. Some other department stores like Giant Tiger, Fields and the NorthWest Company are expanding their influence and do well in smaller towns, but the big four have the lion’s share of the market.
And the mover and shaker of the big four is Walmart. Worldwide, this retail juggernaut has over 900 million square feet (84 square kilometres) of retail space generating almost $422 billion in revenue. It is the largest public company by revenue in the world. If it were a country, it would land in the 29th position on the CIA world factbook list of countries by GDP. The 2.1 million full- and part-time people who work at Walmart equivocate to the current combined employment of Newfoundland, PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and half of Manitoba.
Growth in Canada has been spectacular, especially when compared to the performances of the Bay, Zellers and Sears. In 1994, Walmart arrived here by purchasing 122 Woolco stores with about 14.6 million square feet of retail space and estimated sales of $4.3 billion. Within six years, there were 174 stores. At the end of 2010, there were 325 Walmart stores employing about 85,000 people with retail space of 42 million square feet and estimated sales of $22 billion. That equates to the same area as 653 Canadian football fields or 2,471 hockey rinks producing over 40% of general merchandise sales in Canada. When we take out the areas of motor vehicles, furniture, building materials, gasoline stations, convenience stores and beer, wine and liquor stores, about one in every 10 retail dollars are spent at Walmart.
While Walmart created an additional 151 outlets totalling more than 21.5 million square feet in the 10 years ended in 2010, the Bay, Sears and Zellers lost stores. In the last 10 years, the Bay store count declined by nine, Zellers by 51 and Sears by three.