|Toronto Star, August 21, 1999.|
Shoppers lined up outside the store that morning, expecting bargains galore as Eaton’s began to liquidate its stock. They were disappointed; the details were still being worked out, and the great sell-off wouldn’t begin for two more days. While some customers bought items before they vanished forever, others browsed quickly before wandering off empty-handed. Nostalgia for a faltering Canadian icon was one thing; benefitting from its misery was another.
|Eaton's at Yonge and Dundas, between 1979 and 1991. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 420, Item 21.|
On August 16, 1999, Eaton’s closed its main distribution centre on Sheppard Avenue West, throwing 300 people out of work. Advertising was suspended indefinitely. Within days, the four Eaton brothers who owned most of the company cleaned out their offices. This appeared to be a sure sign the end was coming, despite corporate statements that bankruptcy was a last resort and a libel suit filed against the National Post weeks earlier for suggesting Eaton’s would seek protection.
Frustrated suppliers who were owed millions decided they’d had enough. Armed with a court order, Tommy Hilfiger seized their merchandise from Eaton’s Montreal stores. Fearing other suppliers would take the same action, all Quebec locations were closed on August 20. The next day, the bankruptcy filing was announced. When the Toronto Stock Exchange closed on August 23, Eaton’s stock sat at 40 cents a share, down from 15 dollars during its IPO a year before.
|Globe and Mail, August 23, 1999.|
The 1990s saw boneheaded moves like CEO George Eaton’s implementation, despite internal criticism, of an “everyday value pricing” policy that eliminated promotional sales. Until sinking profits ended the policy in 1994, George defended it as “sensible,” and reacted to criticism of his management by declaring, “Don’t tell me how to run my store. I’ll run it any way I want.” As the decade progressed, cutbacks lowered staff morale, while creditors worried about the balance sheet. Restructuring undertaken in 1997 brought in new management who dropped traditional product lines like appliances, brought in expensive merchandise that alienated long-time customers, and tried to attract younger shoppers through its “Diversity” advertising campaign and clothing department. Trying to recast the retailer as a higher-end destination didn’t work.
As the liquidation sales proceeded in 1999, one source suggested to the Star that Toronto Eaton Centre owner Cadillac Fairview had a list of potential retailers to woo, among them Crate and Barrel and IKEA. That October, Sears Canada announced its intention to buy half-a-dozen stores and the Eaton’s name. The apostrophe and capital E were removed, and the rest of the name disappeared in 2002.
|Toronto Star, August 25, 1999. Click on image for larger version.|
“The root problem,” Rod McQueen concluded, “was achingly simple. Canadians cared more about Eaton’s than the aristocratic family itself. They didn’t mind the store.”
Additional material from The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family (revised edition) by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), and the June 16, 1999, August 17, 1999, and August 25, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star.