We are where we shop. For most of the 20th century, it seemed Canadians of all social strata divided their dollars among Eaton’s, Simpsons and the Bay. Whether in person or by catalogue, most of a middle-class country shopped in the aisles or pages of these bland three.
These stores catered to everyone – from the rural French-Canadian mother ordering a hockey sweater for her son (the Leafs jersey Eaton’s sent Roch Carrier didn’t go over so well) to the big-city youngster hauled down to Queen Street by Mom to try on new winter boots.
If we were good, aunts or grandmothers would treat us to lunch in the relative opulence of Simpsons Arcadian Court in Toronto or Eaton’s Ninth Floor in Montreal. The arrival of the Christmas catalogue meant hours of sheer reverie as we compiled wish lists, only to be warned by our elders to lower our expectations.
The catalogues were the first to go. Then, Simpsons was sold to the Bay and split from Sears. Eaton’s died (a couple of times) and Wal-Mart moved north. We became segregated shoppers. The middle-class went to Sears, the working-class to Wal-Mart and the rich to Holt Renfrew.
There were, it seemed, fewer rich people then. When I left Toronto two decades ago, there were a few high-end shops on either side of Holt’s on Bloor Street. When I returned last year, Bloor had morphed into Rodeo Drive North, with so much bling it’s called the Mink Mile.
Sears, meanwhile, is hurting. It has closed most of its downtown locations. The contents of its flagship store at Toronto’s Eaton Centre were recently liquidated, right down to the cosmetics counters. By 2016, that space is to be occupied by Nordstrom, the upscale Seattle retailer.
At the other end of the mall, Saks Fifth Avenue will be taking over much of the square footage now filled by the Bay, which also happens to be Saks’s new parent company. The Eaton Centre’s owner, Cadillac Fairview, intends to make the mall “the place to go for luxury shopping.”
Bay Street, however, only has eyes for Dollarama. It’s not that stock brokers are suddenly trading down – it’s that the discount retailer’s surging shares have made it the hottest retail stock in Canada. Even Wal-Mart and Target are feeling the heat as Canadians stock up on the basics at one of its 847 outlets, where high-end means $2 instead of $1.
It may be no coincidence that the highest-profile Canadian investments made by Boston-based Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s old firm) include Dollarama and Canada Goose. Bain made a killing when Dollarama went public a few years back. And it just bought a majority stake in Canada Goose, whose parkas can set you back $1,000 or more. You can’t buy them at Sears, though the ailing retailer is being sued by Canada Goose for selling an alleged knock-off for about $200.
Poor Sears. It’s tempting to see the decline of mid-level stores like it, combined with the boom times at the top and bottom of the retail spectrum, as a sign of the much-heralded disappearance of the middle class. In hollowed-out manufacturing towns, main streets and malls that once had a department store are increasingly home to dollar stores and pawn shops.
“The post-recession reality,” The New York Times recently noted, “is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.”
It’s probably not as simple as that, on either side of the border. Here, the top 1 per cent’s share of income has held steady or declined in recent years, and stands at about half of the U.S. level. While the Canadian middle class is hardly thriving, it does not seem to have stopped spending.
The good news is that the Internet has made us shrewder shoppers as globalization has increased our purchasing power. The same consumer who demands the lowest price on some items will splurge on others. Canadians are wearing those Canada Goose coats to Dollarama.
The bad news is that we’re still living beyond our means. Household debt reached a record 163.7 per cent of disposable income in the third quarter of 2013. The average Canadian’s non-mortgage debt is expected to hit nearly $29,000 in 2014. Those aren’t sustainable levels.
By the time Saks and Nordstom arrive, the party may be over and eBay may be awash in second-hand coats.