When a store closes and the sign out front is removed, the ghostly imprint of the name often remains on the side of the building for years if no other business replaces it. There’s a term for the lingering outline of the still-readable letters in the buildup of dust and grime: label scar. Though the discount department store Zellers has largely disappeared from the Canadian landscape since its closure roughly a decade ago, the ghosts of its name and logo were still identifiable on buildings across the country years later.
Founded in 1931 in London, Ontario, Zellers reached its zenith in the late ’90s with about 350 locations coast to coast. In 2011, after years of increased competition from the expansion of US discount stores such as Walmart into Canadian territory, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had acquired Zellers in the 1970s, transferred the leases of nearly 220 Zellers stores to Target, effectively snuffing out the retailer (a handful of Zellers liquidation outlets lingered until 2020). But Target faltered in Canada, losing almost $1 billion less than a year after launching. It pulled out in 2015, shutting down all its locations in the country. Since then, suburban and exurban landscapes have been haunted by big, empty stores. Canadians on social media have regularly shared images of these dead spaces as well as calls to bring back the homegrown bargain brand. Since Target’s retreat, they have frequently waxed poetic about Zellers’ in-house diner, the Skillet, or its teddy bear mascot Zeddy, or shared retro videos and photos of the stores. These outpourings regularly spawn articles pointing out the spikes in nostalgia. Since 2020, the online outlet Narcity has published more than twenty stories about Zellers, many of which feature TikToks and tweets about the brand. In “Zellers, Terrazzo, and Vibes: An Ode to the ’90s Shopping Mall,” Toronto Star reporter Karon Liu wrote that Zellers met with an “unjust end.” Readers seemed to agree and voted Zellers their favourite nostalgic mall store out of sixteen contenders in the Star ’s 2021 mall madness bracket.
In August 2022, the Hudson’s Bay Company announced it would be reviving Zellers within existing retail space at Bay locations as well as with a digital shopping site. There was a sense of jubilation among the nostalgic on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media channels. (It was often followed by secondary outpourings of nostalgia for other defunct Canadian discount stores such as BiWay, dead in 2001, or Bargain Harold’s, which went into receivership in 1992.) Readers shared Zellers anecdotes with major media outlets across the country.
But why do so many Canadians seem hungry for the return of the chain? We’re living in a moment rich with cheap goods and discount retailers. Walmart has more than 400 locations in Canada, Dollarama is a juggernaut with more than 1,400 stores, and Amazon offers same-day shipping to cities including Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. Canadians’ love for Zellers and excitement for its resurrection appears to lay bare not just the underlying economic and existential fears of the moment but also the anxieties of a relatively new country familiar with turning to corporate scripts when it comes to defining national identity.
It could be argued that the internet has given us nostalgia on steroids, never letting us forget what toys and movies and brands we once loved and speeding up the pace at which we look back. In a 2014 piece for The Atlantic, Megan Garber noted that nostalgia “at its most basic level requires access to memories—and there is, of course, no better archive than the Internet.” Media outlets are also complicit, Garber suggests, with publications as varied as BuzzFeed, New York magazine, and even the future-oriented Wired publishing stories focused on the past. In 2015, Digiday diagnosed millennials, the first generation of “digital natives,” with “early onset nostalgia” thanks to technology, information overload, and economic anxiety. Gen Z is already looking back even though the oldest of the demographic are still in their twenties, with Vice noting a zoomer fascination with trends from 2014—not exactly a bygone era.
Although Zellers may have become something of a meme for a lot of younger Canadians, there remains a major sense of loss on a physical, community level for those who miss an affordable, homegrown brand. In social media comments and in news outlets’ calls for memories, Zellers has been called a “community staple” in rural areas and small towns as well as a meeting place for families and seniors. In the Toronto Star, a letter to the editor referencing a January announcement of twenty-five revived Zellers locations, noted that Sudbury, Ontario, once home to two Zellers, would not see the retailer’s return.
Some of the longing for the return of Zellers also appears to be tied to former jobs, eating at the in-store restaurant, or shopping there with a grandmother. Dan Guadagnolo remembers shopping at Zellers with his grandmother and father while growing up in Brampton, Ontario. Now an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Guadagnolo notes that, in the past ten years, social media channels have generated a lot of “very sentimental Canadiana nostalgia.” Part of that involves the endless churn of content creation and sharing on the internet. Given how huge Zellers once was, “the scale of its familiarity is going to be something that makes us want to offer it to other people,” he says.
That willingness to share and champion Zellers almost feels at odds with the fact that, as a brand, Zellers wasn’t particularly fashionable in its heyday. In “A Eulogy to Zellers” published in The Gauntlet in 2019, Hannah Brunn notes that, by her teen years, the store’s clothing options weren’t “cool enough.”
Even Zellers appeared to be somewhat aware of this. Ads from decades ago feel like a stark contrast to the more recent public displays of affection for the brand. A tagline featured in commercials from the ’80s suggests a slight sense of shame or embarrassment about shopping there or being thrifty in general: “Only you know how little you paid.” One commercial with the slogan features children dancing in bright-coloured clothes. A voiceover announces, “Clothes from Zellers bring out your kids’ styles loud and clear. But they don’t make a sound about how little you paid.” It ends with a wide-eyed boy covering his mouth with his hand. Another TV ad for homewares highlights “Style—mood—secrecy” and ends with a fashionable woman, watch and jewellery sparkling, holding her finger up in an exaggerated shushing sign.
Guadagnolo says Zellers was never particularly cool. But there’s been a shift with time. “It’s the fact that we all kind of remember it that’s made it cool. And remember it in these very digital ways.” Instagramming a photo of a former Zellers store or tweeting about your favourite meal at the Skillet can fuel discussions online and generate a sense of well-being and community.
Companies routinely monitor these trips down memory lane using “social listening”—tuning in to conversations, keywords, and trends related to a specific brand—to see if the brand is worth a comeback or a marketing campaign geared toward the past. The official Zellers Instagram account, which went live in late 2022, has tapped directly into these social media conversations. Nostalgia and throwbacks are referenced directly in some of its early posts, while some others feature the excited tweets of Zellers fans superimposed on top retro photos of the retailer.
The current love for Zellers also feels connected to a larger trend when it comes to the marketing of discount retailers: it’s become savvy or even chic to buy inexpensive goods, removing any sense of embarrassment or need to maintain secrecy for not being able to afford higher-priced options. Last year, the second-hand chain store Value Village opened two “boutique” locations in downtown Toronto. Recent Instagram posts from the company often feature the hashtag #thriftproud alongside photos of fashionable young women. Some posts use “haul” language and pictures of full shopping carts.
Marketers have managed to recast low prices as a gateway to abundance. Other companies have successfully suggested that shopping choices are less about economic necessity and more about getting more. No Frills, the discount grocery chain owned by Loblaw, has also seen success with similar messaging in its swaggering #Hauler campaign, which later included superhero-like shoppers enjoying the thrill of buying more groceries for less. No Frills’ No Name store brand, which features plain packaging in yellow and black, has been an inspiration to artists and a design darling among minimalists. In the past five years, Loblaw seems to have picked up on the vibe and launched national campaigns where yellow and black ads have taken over entire subway platforms and city buildings. No Frills marketing merchandise, including bags and scarves, has also proven popular. Amid news that the company was launching a clothing line in its trademark yellow and black, Mary MacIsaac, senior vice president of marketing at Loblaw, told the Canadian Press that customers were wearing the gear as a kind of “badge of honour.” The Hamilton-based band Arkells shot an entire music video inside a No Frills, the yellow and black branding clearly visible.
But this wider embrace or memeification of a discount brand can be unsettling for those who grew up low income. Anna May Henry is an artist who has used No Name imagery in her work to explore how growing up poor shaped her identity. “For so many people buying budget food isn’t a cute or cool choice, but a matter of survival. I’ve had people approach my work without looking at it too hard with comments like ‘Oh my god, No Name . . . so funny,’ which could not be farther from where I’m coming from,” she says in an email. “[It] speaks to a general tongue in cheek attitude about the brand, which seems to be most likely coming from a population that didn’t experience the shame of living below the poverty line.” However, she notes that making these products more fun and appealing likely helps in destigmatizing poverty in the grocery aisle.
Jenna Jacobson, an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Toronto Metropolitan University, says that part of the recent fervour for Zellers has to do with a real sense of financial anxiety in our current moment. Most large retailers try to attract multiple demographics: it makes business sense for a discount chain to try and attract both lower-income and higher-income shoppers. And companies such as Walmart also benefit during troubling economic times, according to Morning Brew, in part because the average person’s purchasing power decreases but also because of what economists call “trading down”—people with means swapping high-priced items for cheaper versions.
“Social media is often criticized for bringing out the curated, edited experiences—this aspirational view of people’s lives,” says Jacobson. While pledging one’s allegiance to a bargain brand doesn’t change that, she says, it may be an attempt by some people to show a kind of perceived realness online. “It’s an attempt at almost positioning oneself as authentic.”
Not everyone is excited about the return of Zellers. Following the announcement of its resurrection, James Peters called the phenomenon “puzzling” in an opinion piece in the Kamloops-based outlet CFJC Today: “People remember . . . what, exactly? The smell? The products that could be purchased at half-a-dozen other places at the same price point?” He and many others have suggested Canadians aren’t really pining for the retail chain but for a lost era instead. Jacobson shares the idea that nostalgia for a simpler time is particularly appealing now, given the overall feeling of anxiety related not just to financial difficulties but the pandemic as well.
In a paper from a 2011 marketing conference, Jana Rutherford and Eric H. Shaw found that “when consumers encounter periods of discontinuity they tend to become more nostalgic. . . . [N]ostalgic behavior of consumers is a defense mechanism used to deal with negative emotions about the present or concern for the future.” Pointing to a 1992 study in the Journal of Advertising, they suggested it showed that “the use of nostalgia in marketing would become more prevalent as consumers became discontented with the present or anticipated a bleak future and therefore wanted to return to a more pleasant past.”
Nostalgia marketing has become a major force in recent years, with business publications and outlets such as PR Daily and Forbes pointing out the business benefits of tapping into the feeling. In some cases, nostalgia marketing has involved the hyped-up return of discontinued products as part of a special limited-time campaign. Last year, McDonalds brought back its Boo Buckets for a few days before Halloween, swapping out the usual red Happy Meal boxes for the plastic trick-or-treating buckets it made popular in the 1980s. Also last year, Pepsi revived Crystal Pepsi for the thirtieth anniversary of the flavour, using the hashtag #showusyour90s on social media.
A 2021 report from Talkwalker, a company that looks into social media trends and consumer insights, found that keywords related to nostalgia and remembering the past shot up from a baseline of 13 million mentions to 24.4 million as soon as COVID-19 lockdowns started. The upheaval of the pandemic may have encouraged companies to tap into warm and fuzzy feelings relating to bygone times. “Nostalgia is a very powerful marketing mechanism,” Guadagnolo says, “especially in a country like Canada where we are so used to and so familiar with brands really, really latching on to identity and shared experience.”
Think of the enormously popular “I am Canadian” Molson beer commercial from 2000 which featured a rant from “Joe Canada” describing all the ways in which Canadians differ from and are superior to our neighbours to the south. (“I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation.”) Then heritage minister Sheila Copps even played the commercial for a crowd of Americans in Boston as part of an official government conference. Or think of how Tim Hortons, owned by a huge multinational, has become a signifier of Canadianness, signalling through its ads that we’re a hockey-loving, community-oriented people. The brand has even been used as a prop by politicians. Former prime minister Stephen Harper used it frequently for announcements and photo-ops, and prime minister Justin Trudeau has made campaign stops at Tim Hortons as well. Zellers, it seems, isn’t far behind. In the lead-up to the Conservative Party leadership race in July 2020, Peter MacKay, a lawyer and former cabinet minister, responded to a post from a Zellers parody account calling on all leadership candidates to offer support for the retailer. MacKay, the son of a former federal cabinet minister, shared an early memory of Christmas shopping at Zellers with his grandmother. “Going to Zellers from a rural community outside New Glasgow was like going to New York City!” he tweeted.
Part of this is by design. Being Canadian is hard-baked into the Zellers brand. Following Walmart’s arrival in Canada in 1994, ads in the mid-’90s emphasized the company’s Canadianness. In one commercial, amid footage of farmers, construction workers, and restaurant servers, a voiceover announces, “It takes a Canadian to know how hard Canadians work,” and ends with: “Zellers—your truly Canadian store.” As Walmart made further inroads into the country, Zellers was forced to give up its slogan that the “lowest price is the law” in part because competitors were beating it on prices. In an interview with the Globe and Mail in 1998, a member of the ad agency responsible for Zellers’ catchphrase mourned its retirement, saying that it was as Canadian as the flag: “It’s part of our lexicon, it’s part of our vocabulary.” The Bay has picked up on this. In the press release announcing the return of the store, it called Zellers “a brand deeply rooted in the Canadian experience.”
For online Zellers nostalgia, undercurrents of nationalistic sentiment aren’t hard to find. In 2020, Brittlestar, the stage name of comedian and video creator Stewart Reynolds, released “Moving Target,” a music video set to ’80s-style synths and drum machines that laments the loss of the chain. It references the dazzle and disappointment of Target: “You and your American smile / Designed to drive me wild / I should’ve known you’d break my heart / And leave me alone with Walmart.” Given Zellers’ reputation as a relatively stable place to work, the company stands in contrast to the guilt some Canadians may feel shopping with other purveyors of cheap goods, such as Amazon and Walmart, that have much less stability and employ gig-based workers. In her eulogy, Hannah Brunn tracks this feeling: “Zellers’ simplicity was welcoming in light of our latest relationship—our dependency rather, is more like it . . . the situation we’ve found ourselves in is as scary as it is exciting. Amazon has taken over our lives, collecting those ‘mom and pop’ stores like trophies, shoving department stores into their unmarked graves.” This fear may explain the fervour of Zellers nostalgia: an anxiety about the brute force of large multinationals; a longing for a simpler time, brought on by the explosion of nostalgia-driven online content, mingled with real financial concerns; and an urge to latch on to a unifying symbol of Canadianness amid all these shakeups.
Can a Zellers revival solve any of these anxieties? Can the brand even stay afloat as a subsidiary of the Bay? Jacobson says bringing back Zellers will be a challenge “as there are competitors that provide bargains, such as Amazon, Walmart, Dollarama, or even second-hand marketplaces on social media, like Facebook Marketplace.” Other business experts have noted that the Bay may be bringing back the brand in part because, in late 2020, it let its trademark of Zellers lapse. According to Retail Insider, a Quebec family bought it with plans to open small Zellers storefronts and restaurants; the Bay’s 2023 refresh of Zellers is seen as an attempt to wrest back control of the brand.
In early 2023, HBC announced more details. Each new Zellers that will open within an existing Bay store will be roughly 8,000–10,000 square feet in size, depending on the location. The online site will launch in tandem with the opening of the physical spaces, and the family restaurants will be revived as food trucks. It appears Zellers will be returning as a shadow of its former self. Those massive stores of old—beloved as places where grandmothers shopped and friends met at diner tables—will still be empty.