Zellers? What’s next – furbies?

Why this unlikely comeback might be exactly what we need

Ana Somani (she/her) // Contributor

My grandmother hoarded Zellers coupons like her life depended on it. When my brother and I  arrived for visits clad in our acid washed jeans and hand-me-down Gap hoodies, there was no ambiguity about where we would go. The bargains beckoned. The fish and chips called our names. In the red and white 1950s themed ‘Zellers Family Restaurant’ she annihilated us at Uno before grabbing a red shopping cart and loading it up with Legos and Lilo and Stitch pajamas. For me, Zellers will always carry the memory of my grandparents in those last perfect days of childhood, before the world’s ugliness started shoving its way into view. You can imagine my glee when I heard the news.

Yes, that’s right. Almost a decade after its tragic liquidation, Zellers is coming back from the dead with our youthful exuberance in tow. My enthusiasm is hardly unique. For many Canadians in early adulthood, the nostalgia of Zellers is right up there with slap bracelets and the Scholastic Book Fair.

90s trends have been resurfacing for a few years now, but the resurrection of Canada’s most iconic discount shopping outfit is bigger than Y2K denim. What does this mean for us? Will Blockbuster reopen its doors? Will cell phones reattach their extendable antennae? The internet is alight with callbacks and memes — from a marketing perspective I can only imagine that was the goal.

In 2022, the power of nostalgia marketing has never been so potent. Young Canadians have lived through more mass trauma events than we can keep track of, and are now struggling to build for a future we can’t control or predict. The ongoing disruption of COVID 19, skyrocketing Vancouver rent prices, and looming knowledge that the planet will soon quite literally be on fire has left many people disillusioned, and particularly vulnerable to marketing campaigns that hearken back to those sun-soaked days in the Zellers Restaurant. Really, it’s no better than the other tactics companies employ, from performative sustainability initiatives to ads that feature the LGBTQIA2S+ community for only the month of June. Indeed, not all the Zellers buzz has been positive, with many people voicing concerns about its viability, questioning the motivations of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and pointing out that you can’t build a successful business on nostalgia alone.

Even though the return of Zellers is a dream 10 years in the making, it’s hard to ignore how drastically the Canadian retail landscape and the word at large have changed in its absence. For one thing, other retailers like Walmart and Amazon have long since filled the void, and the discourse surrounding those business models has transformed beyond recognition. Today, the same multibillion dollar corporations that were ignored or even idolized in the 2000s are sullied with accusations of wastefulness, exploitation, and greed. Underneath all the nostalgia, a new Zellers would be no different than similar companies selling cheap goods that end up in landfills sooner rather than later — if it manages to carve out a new space in the saturated discount shopping market that initially drove it out of business.

The difficulty of this endeavor may have accounted in part for the spectacular failure of Target’s Canadian expansion plan, which capitalized on newly hollowed out Zellers stores around the country, though it may have also been a result of budgetary overconfidence, supply chain issues, or — as in my case — the enduring devotion of Zellers loyalists. In any event, Target lost more than $2 billion trying to make it in Canada, and the whole debacle serves as a bleak reminder of what the future could hold.

It’s hard to say if Zellers will work in the modern world, or if those of us aiming to be more mindful consumers should even want it to, but at the end of the day I have to root for it. I have to believe that it will work. The core of this admittedly silly conversation contains a very real seed of hope; that fate can turn, that dreams don’t have an expiration date, that things can work out when the odds are stacked. There’s no denying it’s been a rough couple of years, but if Zellers, that eternal underdog, can come back to life after a 10-year shut down, then maybe we can start living again, too.

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