Monday, July 22, 2013

past pieces of toronto: towers department stores

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on June 3, 2012.

Source: the Toronto Star, November 16, 1960
As the 1960s dawned, the discount department store heralded a new era of shopping. While Toronto had been home to stores such as Honest Ed’s for some time, the new breed of bargain emporiums were large, suburban sites which promised low prices, self-service and plenty of parking. Two years before future industry giants K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Woolco opened their first stores in the United States, Towers brought Metro Toronto consumers a taste of the future of retail.

Launched as the Canadian division of U.S.-based Towers Marts International, the chain’s plan was to erect stores, sell them to recover the capital costs, then lease them back. Concessionaires rented space inside each store to operate individual departments—one merchant ran men’s clothing, for example, while another ran the pharmacy. The initial 14 concessionaires, including familiar names like Coles books, signed a one-year deal, with the cost of the lease afterwards determined by their sales volume. By coming together under one roof, everyone saved money by using common cashiers, bags and fixtures.

After six weeks of construction, the first Towers store opened at Lawrence Avenue East and Midland Avenue in Scarborough on November 17, 1960. An ad printed in the Star two days earlier depicted a child clad only in a rain barrel declaring “I’m not buying another thing” until the doors opened. The ad promised shoppers “bargains in sufficient quantities to fill your needs,” “forty-eight self-service, pressure-free departments on one floor to fill every need for all the family,” and “acres of free parking.” The festivities included the crowning of Mrs. Canada, who represented “the nation’s happiest housewife,” or at least the happiest homemaker to shop at Towers.


More gimmicky touches were used when Towers opened its third store on Dundas Street West between Bloor and Roncesvalles in June 1962. The first 1,000 customers could spend money to get more money—in this case, silver dollars for 80 cents. Seven sets of triplets, ranging in age from 3 to 34, were on hand to perform duties that including modelling the chain’s latest fashions and burying a time capsule intended to be left untouched until 2062.

Whether Towers would survive one more year, let alone 100, was a reasonable question. Messy relationships with its concessionaires, an inability to sell properties as fast as they were built, and a split with its American parent led to Towers falling into receivership in March 1963. During a creditors meeting at the King Edward Hotel that month, the receiver noted that untangling Towers’ affairs was “the most complicated matter I’ve ever been connected with” thanks to numerous unfavourable agreements it had made. Sales weren’t helped whenever customers unhappy with one concessionaire’s products said to heck with the rest of them and never set foot in Towers again.

Source: the Toronto Star, September 11, 1980. Click on image for larger version.
The ultimate solution to the company’s problems was a gradual acquisition by grocer Oshawa Wholesale (later known as Oshawa Group) between 1965 and 1967. The chain’s numbers were boosted when Oshawa converted its Rite-Way discount stores to the Towers banner. The concessionaire model was phased as leases expired. Many stores built thereafter were paired with a Food City supermarket. Apart from some bumpiness in the mid-1970s, the chain became profitable and opened stores around Toronto in spots like the Galleria on Dupont Street.

Despite appearances in shows like Degrassi Junior High, Towers’ modest store count made it an attractive proposition for a sell-off as the 1990s loomed and Oshawa Group concentrated on its food and drug businesses. A bidding war erupted between the Hudson’s Bay Company and Woolworths for the 51-store chain, with HBC emerging the victor in October 1990. Over the next year, most of the stores were converted into Zellers locations. Figuring out where Towers locations were in Toronto without a store list isn’t too difficult: the tell-tale signs are malls and plazas where Zellers was/is located in close proximity to a FreshCo/Price Chopper/Sobeys grocery store.

Additional material from the September 9, 1960, November 15, 1960, November 16, 1960, June 14, 1962, April 1, 1963, and September 11, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star

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