The end of the Zellers era

Published on March 26, 2013
The number of employees at Zellers has shrunk to a shadow of its former workforce of 65. Some of them have been with the company for more than 40 years and now that are saying goodbye as Zellers closes in the Yarmouth Mall. CARLA ALLEN PHOTO

By Carla Allen



Ella Doucette says it was one of the saddest days of her 45-year career with Zellers when she called the 65 associates (employees) into her office to tell them the store was closing.

“Together, we’ve gone through many things as a family – marriages, births, deaths,” the manager said.

 “There were a lot of emotions.”

Doucette began working part-time as a cashier and sign maker at the store on Main Street in 1968 in what is now Lovitt Plaza.

She remembers the sound the sign machine made – klunk, klunk, klunk – and a feathered resident of the store that she had no love for – a talking mynah.

“He was so gross. I hated that bird. I had to clean his cage. They had trained him to say shop at Sobeys, shop at Sobeys,” she said.

She was 18 and studying retail merchandising at what was then the vocational school on Parade Street when the Zellers manager asked her if she wanted a full-time job.

When Zellers opened its new location as an anchor for the Yarmouth mall in 1973, she was earning 90 cents an hour. The regional vice-president announced a 10-cent raise for all of the supervisors, because they were working 24/7, 12-hour days to get the new store open, she said.

At one point in her career, Doucette worked in Amherst for eight years, then returned to Yarmouth.

Jane Redding, who has 36 years with the company, wrote a poem about her early years at Zellers.

She referred to the inky printing press as looking like something out of the Charles Dickens era. A mistake on one order resulted in 139 dozen doilies arriving at the store.

Another time the person responsible for printing a sign for a sale on shirts forgot the r. It was a week before staff noticed the mistake.

There were no computer cash registers, not even a calculator. Exchange rates had to be figured out using a pencil and brain.

Doucette printed the poem off and distributed it to all of the staff. Redding ended it with:  “Sometimes I thought I might have found a better job, but I don’t believe I could have ever found better people.”

Doucette echoes the sentiment and says there were even four employees from the original downtown store at the present location until the closure.

“It’s all about the people. If it wasn’t for the people, I would never have been 45 years with anybody.”

The staff is proud of the money they’ve raised for community causes such as cystic fibrosis and Christmas Daddies.

The loss of jobs will impact the community hard, Doucette predicts.

“These are single moms, or their husband is a seasonal worker,” she said.

The employees have received information from unemployment spokespeople, NSCC Burridge and financial advisers. Some are looking at returning to school, a few will be retiring.

“Now it’s finished. Zellers is going to be history. It’s hard,” said Doucette.

Zellers will close its doors by the end of this month in Yarmouth, New Minas, Bridgewater, New Glasgow and Truro.

How will the loss of the anchor store affect the Yarmouth mall?

“We don’t know. We’ve never been without it,” said mall manager Linda Deveau.

She prefers to look at the 80,000-square-foot void as an empty slate. The loss is a large one, but she says the store is only one of 34 in the mall.

“They’re all still open for business – Sobeys, Lawtons and all the stores in between.”

In 2011, the American discount chain Target Corporation bought leaseholds for 189 Zellers locations in Canada from Hudson’s Bay Company for $1.8 billion.

It is transforming 124 of those stores into Target stores this spring and closing down the remainder, including Yarmouth.

The closure of the local store is happening almost 40 years from the day it opened at the mall (April 4, 1973). Prior to that, Zellers was established on Main Street in the 1960s.

Deveau says many feel an emotional connection to Zellers, and she refers to it as a Canadian icon.

“Almost every community has a Zellers. It was a leader.”

The mall’s owner, Toulon Development Corporation, has been seeking a replacement tenant since last August.

“There are not a lot of 80,000-square-foot tenants in the Canadian retail landscape for shopping centres at this time,” said Deveau.

“There are a lot of phone calls being made, a lot of footwork being done. It’s a buyer’s market.”

She says the company has ideas and “architectural concepts” for redesigning the space so it could host multiple tenants.

“Whether that’s two big ones, 10 medium ones or 20 small ones, we have that flexibility now to decide,” she said.

She added that the mall has had prospective tenants in the past that it didn’t have space for. Overall, during the six years Deveau has been at the mall, she says there have only been one or two vacancies at any one time.

A liquidation company has been hired to handle the closure, with retail goods sold initially, followed by infrastructure like fixtures.

Deveau says in some cases across the province there are lease terms left on leases and negotiations between landlords and Zellers stores are taking place. The length of time ranges from a few months to up to 17 years left on some leases.

There is lease time left with the Yarmouth Zellers but Deveau would not disclose the length.

“We have to complete our business with the current tenant. However, we can begin to look down the road at new tenants and have been for sometime,” she said.