Sears’ roots trace back to Stratford
Sears first Canadian store opened in Stratford in 1953
Thirty-five dollars per week. That’s what department manager Hal Borden made while working at the first Sears in Canada, which was located in Stratford.
Sears Canada Inc. is seeking court approval Friday to liquidate its remaining stores in the country, which would mark the end of an era – one that started in the Festival City. Initially established as Simpsons-Sears – a partnership between a Canadian and American company, respectively – its first catalogue store opened in September 1953.
It was located at 40 Ontario St.
“The mayor cut the ribbon and the store opened with major appliances, televisions, radios, plumbing and heating, and a catalogue desk on the main floor,” Sears Canada spokesman Vincent Power read notes from the grand opening. “The top floor had furniture, floor coverings, rugs, sewing machines, vacuums, as well as general offices, and the basement level sold hardware, sporting goods and auto accessories.”
Why was Stratford chosen as the pilot site? One theory, Power explained, is there was an agreement between Simpsons and Simpsons-Sears – the newly formed company was treated as a separate entity – to not open a location within a 25-mile radius of existing stores. Power said there were Simpsons in Toronto and London at the time.
Additionally, the new company’s target customers were rural and suburban residents.
“It’s possible they felt that Stratford was a good market,” Power said. “Maybe being in between London and Toronto might have helped with distribution.”
Roy Edgar was the first store manager while Borden, cashing his $35 weekly paycheques, was a division manager of sporting goods and automotive.
The building is now home to The Green Room. Owner Helen Matheson said they purchased it from Gorsline Furniture in 1979. “It wasn’t Sears at that time,” she said Thursday. “I don’t know how long he was here.”
Nancy Skillings said she’s been shopping at Sears in Stratford for 17 years, but fondly recalled its roots.
“I also appreciated the catalogue Sears,” she said.
In 1989, it moved to Festival Marketplace. It had two homes in the Stratford mall: a 35,000-squarefoot space where Sport Chek now operates and an 83,000-squarefoot spot vacated by a former Zellers clearance store in 2004. For the last 13 years, Sears has been the building’s largest tenant.
That streak will end between mid-December and late January, if liquidation plans are approved in court, leaving 50 employees out of work. Job losses could reach 12,000 if all 130-plus Canadian stores are shuttered. Other southwestern Ontario locations include Sarnia, Windsor, Chatham, and in London’s Westmount Mall.
Its final resting spot in Stratford was an historic move at the time.
“It was the first store where we tried to have a one-floor model,” Power said. “Usually we had two floors and you’d have fashion on the main floor and you’d have home goods and linens and all that on the other floor.”
The goal was to offer a full selection to smaller communities in a single structure.
“This was our prototype at the time,” he said. “It was kind of cool when it opened. We hadn’t really done that before.”
The model was also implemented in Charlottetown, P.E.I. one year later but, due to developers not building malls in Canada and the 2008 recession, management focused on updating current stores as opposed to opening new ones.
“We didn’t have a lot of new stores after that, but it definitely was the model we were going to use going forward,” Power said.
Power recalled accompanying management to both of Sears’ official openings in Festival Marketplace.
“The staff there have always been top notch,” he said. “They were always high performers and we’ll miss having them part of our family.”
Power said there may have been another Stratford location prior to the mall, but couldn’t confirm that. email@example.com
A shopper exits Sears on Wednesday in Stratford. Its likely closure marks the end of the company’s Canadian era, which started in Stratford.
The Green Room is seen here on Thursday in Stratford. Canada’s first Sears, known then as a Simpsons-Sears catalogue store, opened here in 1953.