The man no one knows

Allan Fotheringham October 4 1999

The man no one knows

Allan Fotheringham October 4 1999

Eaton's versus Simpsons

The Maclean's Excerpt

In the 1950s, the two department-store chains used classic weapons, including espionage, in the fight for retail supremacy

The 1950s may be nearly half a century past, but the issues ofthat decade still resonate today. In a new collection of articles from the archives of Maclean’s, Canada in the Fifties, published this week by Penguin Books Canada, those connections between past and present are vividly shown. Among the leading stories ofthat decade, as reported in Maclean’s; is a private school education better than a public one; do a handful of businessmen exert too much economic clout; does the CBC deliver full value to taxpayers; and are teens getting too romantically serious too soon. And, as assistant editor Fred Bodsworth wrote on Feb. 1, 1955, it was a time when Eatons continued to dominate department-store sales despite a challenge from a revitalized Simpsons-Sears.

When Simpsons-Sears Ltd. opened one of its plush new stores on the outskirts of Hamilton last November, the downtown Hamilton store of the T. Eaton Co. sent a huge bouquet of white mums with good-luck wishes. Then Eaton’s, having observed business protocol, quietly began to do everything in its power to prevent those goodluck wishes from coming true.

For Hamilton had temporarily become the focal point of the nation’s hottest merchandising battle—the coast-to-coast Eaton’s-Simpsons’ struggle for the biggest slice of Canada’s billiondollar-a-year department-store sales. Eaton’s has had the biggest slice by far, with annual sales probably double those of Simpsons. But 2% years ago, after some 80 years during which Simpsons didn’t seriously challenge Eaton’s lead, the Robert Simpson Co. joined forces with the powerful Sears

The Macleans Excerpt

The identity of the department stores' comparison shoppers' is kept secret, because their duties include spying on their own staff

Roebuck Co. of the United States, set up the new Simpsons-Sears and began a program of swift and aggressive mail-order and store expansion with the apparent aim of toppling Eatons from its long-held spot on the top of the department-store heap.

Simpsons is still a long way behind, but it is challenging the Eatons colossus as it was never challenged before. The merchandising war is reaching into virtually every Canadian home from the Eskimo tents of Aklavik to the mansions of Westmount, for there are few Canadians indeed who do not at some time or other buy something displayed in an Eatons or Simpsons’ catalogue or store.

The Hamilton battle last November was a miniature of the nationwide struggle. Hamilton had been an Eaton’s stronghold for many years. Its six-floor downtown store had been the city’s biggest—in size, sales volume and prestige. But the long-standing Eaton’s supremacy was threatened when the dazzling new Simpsons-Sears store opened at the city’s eastern outskirts. Eaton’s, on its six floors, has 190,000 square feet of selling space; Simpsons-Sears on two floors has 220,000 feet. But perhaps more important for today’s shoppers, Simpsons-Sears is surrounded by a floodlit, 17-acre parking lot, large enough to accommodate 1,500 cars—more parking space than on all of Hamilton’s downtown streets.

Eaton’s had been planning for the Simpsons-Sears opening almost as long and as carefully as Simpsons-Sears itself. Early last fall, when it became known the new SimpsonsSears would be open six full days a week, Eaton’s, which had always closed Saturday afternoons, began to stay open all day Saturday.

The opening was scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 17. On the preceding Saturday, Eaton’s launched a sale that it called a “Pre-Christmas Shopping Festival” and heralded it with four pages of advertising in the Hamilton Spectator. It splurged with its best bargains the night before the SimpsonsSears opening and hedged them with a “no telephone or mail-order” restriction to lure customers downtown from the equally attractive bargains Simpsons-Sears was offering to mark its suburban opening.

One of Simpsons-Sears’ best bargains was on women’s woollen sweaters normally priced up to $10.95. It cut these to $4.98. Next day, Eaton’s featured the same sweaters for $4.98, too. Simpsons-Sears had 59-cent nylons on its first day, Eaton’s had 59-cent nylons the next day.

Hamilton hadn’t had such a week of bargains in years, and each store did a roaring business. But Eaton’s didn’t lure many shoppers from the Simpsons-Sears opening. As has happened everywhere that a new Simpsons-Sears store has opened, crowds began gathering long before the opening ceremony. Fifty police toiled to untangle traffic jams that extended like spokes of a wheel in every direction. When the doors of the store were thrown open, a crowd of7,000 swept in. “It was havoc,” said L. E. Coffman, former manager of a Sears Roebuck store in Omaha, Neb., now manager of the new Simpsons-Sears at Hamilton. “We sold out our main brand of refrigerator the first day—105 of them. And that first day we sold 12,000 pairs of nylon hose, practically every one we had.”

The dollar value of the business Eaton’s does is one of Canada’s most closely guarded business secrets. Eaton’s is a family-owned company with no public stock, so it does not have to reveal business figures except in confidence to the government. But the Dominion Bureau of Statistics publishes each year the total business by all Canadian department stores—around $ 1 billion. Since many stores publicly announce their figures, it is possible by elimination to arrive at a total sales figure that must be Eaton’s. By this means it is estimated that Eaton’s stores and mail-order

offices sell between $450 million and $500 million worth of goods a year.

For a majority of Canadians, Eatons and Simpsons-Sears are not city or suburban stores at all, but the familiar names on the fat slick mail-order catalogues that are awaited eagerly twice each year in practically every Canadian rural and smalltown home. In many thousands of those homes, Canadas two big mail-order catalogues form the main, often the only, link with the outside business world. They and the Bible are the three books you are sure to find in every farmhouse.

Todays mail-order customers are more conscious of style and fit than they used to be, so both catalogues bulge with charts and measuring advice. Eatons has a half-page chart to order a mans suit; Simpsons-Sears helps women find out if they are petite, shapely, classic or tall in nylon-stocking sizes.

Eatons provides a diagram telling women how to wear a brassiere for the utmost “support and flattery.”

Mail-order sales represent about half the total business for each side, so the stakes are large. Officials of both sides

staunchly declare they wouldn’t think of spying on one another’s catalogue prices ahead of publication, yet both surround their catalogue-production divisions with a security system as tight as the Iron Curtain. “If the other people got possession of advance proofs of our catalogue, they could crucify us, practically put us out of business,” said J. H. Thomson, Simpsons-Sears catalogue manager. “They could beat us on every price and we couldn’t do a thing about it for six months.”

Soon after the Sears deal was announced, Eaton’s began to boast of its long all-Canadian background in a demonstration of patriotism skilfully designed to contrast with the newly acquired U.S. roots of Simpsons-Sears. Instead of calling itself simply “Eaton’s” in its ads and on its delivery trucks, it suddenly blossomed forth as “Eaton’s of Canada.” Symbolic maps of Canada, and Union Jacks to draw attention to its British-made goods, were spotted through the Eaton’s catalogue.

Meanwhile at Toronto, the birthplace and modern head-

quarters of both firms, the nations biggest individual Eatons and Simpsons’ stores face each other across narrow Queen Street, eyeing each other’s movements like belligerent eagles on neighbouring crags. Every shopping day, a surging stream of shoppers flows back and forth across the street between the competing stores. What the shoppers do not know is that among them often are Eaton’s or Simpsons’ spies. In the trade, they are called “comparison shoppers,” who have made it virtually impossible for one store to have an exclusive bargain more than a few hours: the other store’s comparison shoppers spot it, rush back home with the word and the bargain is quickly duplicated in the second store.

The identity of comparison shoppers is kept secret in their own stores as well as outside, for their duties also include spying on their own staff. A Simpsons’ comparison shopper recendy bought at Eaton’s a dress she deliberately selected as requiring alteration before it would fit. Then she bought a dress at her own store that required the same amount of alteration. Fier own store, Simpsons, wanted one day longer to make the alteration. Next day, the department manager was curdy informed that Eaton’s was giving faster alteration service and that his service must speed up or else.

Both stores refuse to discuss their comparison-shopping staffs or methods, hardly admitting that such staffs even exist. But one thing is certain—the battle of the big stores has only begun. E3