Trouble in Eatonia

Trouble in Eatonia

Behind the doors of the oldest department store in the country, the swingers are battling the squares, and until one side wins the Eaton’s Idea is nowhere

Barbara Amiel May 31 1976
Trouble in Eatonia

Trouble in Eatonia

Behind the doors of the oldest department store in the country, the swingers are battling the squares, and until one side wins the Eaton’s Idea is nowhere

Barbara Amiel May 31 1976

Trouble in Eatonia

Behind the doors of the oldest department store in the country, the swingers are battling the squares, and until one side wins the Eaton’s Idea is nowhere

Barbara Amiel

Toronto, Black Friday, December 12, 1975. It started off normally enough with the usual flood of committed shoppers breaching Eaton’s doors at 9.30 a.m. and marching purposefully to the counter of their choice. On the main floor liberated salespersons exercised independent judgment as prescribed by the company manual. By about 10.30 a.m. one switchboard operator detected a pattern in incoming calls. Customers were asking about the advertisement in that morning’s Globe and Mail. “Would that be to order merchandise?” the operator asked one caller. “No,” came the reply, “it most certainly would not.”

Across the street Simpsons’ executives were taking a good look at the ad themselves. Simpsons buys the back page of the first section of the Globe and Mail and Eaton’s follows suit on the back page of the last section. There had been gossip among retailers about changes in Eatonia land. Gone were Eaton’s demure matrons looking eternally blissful at the sight of wall-towall shag. Replacing them were lean, rouged sprites staring challengingly into the camera and sitting with their legs apart. But today’s ad was in the style of German photographer Helmut Newton, the Wunderkind of fashion photography and the current focus of a fearful row in New York’s Vogue magazine. (Apparently the explicit come-and-get-it sexuality of his fashion spreads was playing havoc with Vogue’s suburban subscriptions.) As one Eaton’s executive later put it: “That December 12 ad was just too Newton for our polyester heaven.”

The advertisement in question showed four brooding gentlemen rigged up in caftans and summer whites staring in a somewhat somnambulant manner into space. In between them, on the floor, was a thin bikini’d girl halfway into a push-up showing some of her limited bosom and a great deal of her substantial palate. Simpsons’ executives looked with relief at their own ad. Dad was decked out in his knee-length leather trench coat with a Christmas present gift-wrapped under his arm. Mom, snappy in her wool knit dress, was looking blissfully vague next to a Christmas tree sprouting from the wall-to-wall oriental rug. Teen-age son was breaking out in a big smile getting ready, it would seem, to

try his first complete sentence. It was Canada as usual.

Criticism escalated that evening as television and radio commentators lectured Eaton’s over their ad, which they considered a put-down of women. The battle moved onto the letters page of the Globe and Mail. Chairman Laura Sabia of the Ontario Status of Women Council, who knows an important issue when she sees one, declared herself “appalled” at a “woman in apparent bondage and lusting ...” Asked Mrs. Sabia provocatively: “Group rape fantasies again?” She failed to note that the limp posture of the four men in the ad suggested they’d have difficulty doing violence to a wet cabbage.

But the ad had far greater significance than the unconventional posture of its models. It drew public attention to a policy battle being waged along the corridors of Eaton’s executive offices: on one side the Eaton’s executives breathlessly in pursuit of the new customer—young (target age 20-45), active and “contemporary,” described as the woman who cares about the design of bathroom beakers as well as brass bedsteads; in opposition to this, the holdouts, those executives afraid of alienating the “traditional” customer assumed to occupy spare moments crocheting antimacassars for tufted couches. Retailing people had been speculating for some time about Eaton’s new direction. Now the policy, which in fact had been approved six months earlier, was manifest. Polyester heaven was to be invaded by Boutique Paradise. Company infighters not yet ready to surrender their turf to this upstart approach to retailing noted the public reaction to the advertisement and bided their time. More ammunition was needed than one scandalous ad to strengthen their hand in a corporate bloodletting. They would not have long to wait.

Memo-Land: Eaton’s people are cursed with a love for initials. Ask them about company decision-making and they burst eagerly into a tale of NDMC and GSMMS all getting together for the sake of ROITA and the like. They can’t help it. Deprive them of their abbreviations and jaws hang slack and the mellifluous flow of explanations becomes jerky and unsure. Still, customers wondering why hardware and plumbing are Out at Eaton’s and chichi little boutiques are In ought to get a rudimentary knowledge of the company structure. First there are no visible Eatons except for Jack Eaton who will retire shortly. Jack Eaton is % not an Eaton primus (even though his fa§ ther was the best president Eaton’s ever I had apart from Timothy). He is the third I cousin of the four Eaton brothers—Fred, 3 John, George and Thor—who are at present on the holding company that owns the stores. Eaton’s decision process seems designed to leave bright young executives sinking like so many lemmings under a sea awash with memos. This is less Eaton’s fault than a reflection of the unwieldy size of the operation. Its 62 stores sell everything from stoves to sundries and slacks. The company manual specializes in organization charts illustrating democratic decision making. But forget all that. In practice it’s a logjam. Head Office has final authority on the style of jeans or mattress covers, but the area stores have the ultimate whammy—the power of the purse. If Vancouver decides their customers won’t wear the mid-calf pants head office adored, then 2,500 pairs may sit in Montreal. Theoretically such contretemps are decided in a civilized manner to the quiet chink of porcelain as coffee cup meets saucer in the conference rooms. Evidence suggests they are more likely resolved in that special way executives do battle: jaws square, memos whizzing like missiles across the flat prairies.

About three years ago Eaton’s admitted what everyone else knew—it was in retailing trouble. Of course trouble is relative when you own the kind of real estate some of their 62 stores snuggle on, and generate about $1.3 billion of business each year. Trouble means teeny wrinkles in a multibillion empire and a performance that wouldn’t look so hot on a prospectus for a family owned outfit itching to go public.

During the 1960s little girls with dark red lipstick and very shrewd brains had been opening up speciality stores and wooing that delectable creature, the “junior” and “contemporary” customer with “disposable” income. (Translation: 20-45 years old, mobile, fashion-oriented and money to burn.) Hudson’s Bay Company was growing in market share and Eaton’s traditional power bases such as the Winnipeg store began to slip. Discounters were having their day too, forcing traditional stores such as Eaton’s to whittle away at customer services in order to compete with prices. Enter financial whiz Earl Herbert Orser. Orser wouldn’t know a Gucci from a griddle but he could add up figures (he started out at Clarkson Gordon); by March 1975 he was Eaton’s new president. It wasn’t long before the money-losing Eaton’s Catalogue was axed. Meanwhile

company executives met together for what Eaton’s number two man, Stan J. Shortt, describes as “discussions, arguments and fights as to who the basic customer was.” Whatever the temperature of this “constructive exchange of ideas,” the surroundings were cushy. Eaton’s executives hammered out their draft policy in the suede and crystal surrounding of Toronto’s Hyatt Regency Hotel with just the briefest of breaks for lunches of cold salmon-in-aspic and quiche. By June 1975 it was all tied up. The new Merchandising Operations Strategy was approved, summarized and issued in neat red binders ready for implementation.

Getting hold of a copy became the retail game of 1975-76. “Have you seen it?” asked one senior executive of Hudson’s Bay Company, “because I sure would like to.” In fact underneath the omnipresent charts codifying “authority factors” the strategy turned out to be nothing more than a cold-blooded appraisal of Canada 1976. Psychographics were in and old Timothy Eaton’s shopkeeping was out. “It is no longer practical,” said the strategy, “to be all things to all people.” Our Store was going selective. “It is only logical to concentrate efforts on attracting the volume market . . . the 20to 45-year-old customer in the middleand upper-middle income sector. This burgeoning market is extremely active, fashion conscious as never before in all aspects of living. It is better educated, more traveled, and more knowledgeable about the world, about sports, culture, homemaking and cooking than previous generations... to be profitable Eaton’s will be the best fashion store in Canada.” The gauntlet was down.

The Chic Minority: In the heart of every retailer lives a spark that yearns to burst into flame at Bloomingdale’s, the east-side Manhattan store that is to fashion retailing what Indianapolis is to car racing. Gordon Ryan was too modest to think that as Bloomingdale’s director of design he had the hottest job in the business, but it was pleasant to have the president of Macy’s telephone for lunch or to be flown out to the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel in California by the Broadway-Hale Corporation. One day Ryan’s phone rang and a voice introduced himself as Stu McCowan, general sales manager of Toronto area stores, in town for a convention. McCowan wanted to get together in the men’s department of Bloomingdale’s. Ryan, who had just turned down a lundi with the president of Ohrbach’s, thought that was rather touching. “As soon as I walked into the department,” said Ryan, “I spotted him.” McCowan, no doubt, was loyally wearing his Haddon Hall suit.

After high-level negotiations Ryan was

wooed away from a desolate Bloomingdale’s into Eatonialand. Eaton’s new merchandising strategy excited him. “Here,” he said, “was a store that needed me.” His first day on the job was confirmation. “Everyone in the boondocks would think they died and went to heaven if they woke up on Eaton’s fashion floor,” he said. “My God! The biggest problem since I’m up here is that there’s no one to talk to about merchandise. They have this corporate level who buys merchandise for the stores and you just don’t know what it is till it arrives. I’m just trying to train my staff to a higher taste level.” His voice drops slightly as he twists the diaper pin holding his muted plaid shirt collar. “What this company needs,” he says, “is more than two token Jews.”

In Montreal Bernie Brodeur, national merchandise manager (women’s), all lean and blond, looks as if he should be in Québécois skin flicks intead of dry goods. Brodeur got American design winner Calvin Klein to sign an exclusive contract with Eaton’s. “We had to beat out Holt Renfrew, Creeds in Toronto, everybody,” he says gleefully. Brodeur is the blithe spirit behind the disco-and-drinks evenings that replaced those funereal Eaton’s fashion shows with audiences who looked like clonings of the Queen Mother. “We had four gorgeous models in Toronto . . .” he muses, his eyes glazing over thoughtfully. Then in a triumph of mind over matter he snaps back to a consideration of company virtues. Bernie is an Eaton’s Man. He got his first job with the company when he was still a kid. But ask him about opposition to his ideas on prêt-à-porter in Portage-laPrairie and he lapses into DES (for the Diplomatic Eaton Silence). Brodeur isn’t snitching on another area of dry rot, either: the Carter, Hawley, Hale Stores Inc. that controls Holt Renfrew of Canada is reported to have given Holt’s three years to triple profits. Daily raiding parties have snagged three of Brodeur’s top buyers. He can’t match salaries because his staff are locked into Eaton’s grid. Even dynamic Bernie Brodeur buckles under that kind of inflexibility.

Brodeur’s sidekick is Jean-Pierre Allemand, the man who runs all the Eaton’s boutiques. Allemand, born in France to a glove manufacturing family, didn’t need any merchandising strategy to set him on the road to Ultimate Chic. In his full pleated grey flannel trousers and exquisitely cut jacket (“all from the Adam Shop, you know”) he is the special nightmare of Eaton’s conservatives. Even visitors hesitate to shake hands, afraid that fingerprints may mar his perfect finish. “People think of me as a bit too elegant,” says Allemand, nodding at his old Gucci shoulderbag as evidence of his current déshabillé, “and I don’t want to be pretentious. But I’m a specialist in high fashion and truthfully I don’t understand mass merchandising.” Allemand winces as he picks his way carefully through the pastel bridal salon outside his office. “God it’s awful. And if you walk across our first floor look at those horrible plastic bags.” He turns into the Montreal Eaton’s Adam Shop, rust suede and stainless steel, filled with salesmen all ready to audition for the next Jean-Paul Belmondo movie. “You know boutiques may only give us a small percentage of sales, but shrewd management knows they are very important because they bring customers into the store. Without them Eaton’s would be very dull. Only mediocre middle management doesn’t understand that.”

Segue to Winnipeg: The heart of resistance to Eaton’s New Look pulses in the flat and fertile plains of Winnipeg. Of course Winnipeg management swears undying fealty to the new merchandising strategy even as it makes plans to drape the entire store in chintz. At Donald and Portage the Eaton’s store fits comfortably into Winnipeg’s commercial vistas, facing as it does the abandoned catalogue building which bears an eerie resemblance to the Texas School Book Depository of Lee Harvey Oswald fame.

What Eaton’s Winnipeg offers the customer is no frills, no nonsense. Each floor seems closer to a bargain basement than the last. The building itself with pipes crisscrossing the ceiling and ugly yellowed linoleum has the ambience of a provincial institution passed by. On the sixth floor, general merchandise manager Brian Laxdal, trapped by rows of undistinguished chesterfields, points to tiny spaces in which single sofas and matching coffee tables sit proudly alone: “I think,” he says, “we have the best damn store in the world.” On the fashion floor Jean-Pierre’s boutiques are barely visible. The Attitude Shop is nonexistent. (One of Eaton’s best features, the Attitude Shop, found in eastern stores, is stocked with first-rate French, Italian and British ready-to-wear.) A halfhearted sign hangs over a back corner of the store proclaiming BOUTIQUES. In one comer, squeezed against the wall, an attractive Winnipegger tries on a Calvin Klein skirt. “I’ve bought my clothes here since I was 17,” says Mrs. Shirley Diner, a poised and chic woman now in her forties. “And I wear a lot of way-out things for Winnipeg. Maybe more people want these kind of clothes but they’re so hard to get here. I try everything on that comes into Eaton’s boutique area. But why do I have to do it in this tiny space? And why are the good clothes all mixed up with the cheap ready-to-wear?” Mrs. Diner pauses and looks longingly at a Christian Aujard top. The store neglected to order the coordinated bottom. “Eaton’s has always been the place to go in Winnipeg for nice things. Still, I wish they’d get more with it.”

In the executive offices in Toronto eyes roll heavenward whenever the Winnipeg store is mentioned. Still Gregory Purchase, vice-president Winnipeg and area stores, feels his store never needed the new policy: “That emphasis has been pretty well

stressed here in Winnipeg for the past 10 years or so. I don’t think you can say that things before or after the new strategy are markedly different.” Head office no doubt agrees. On the ground floor the Winnipeg store sports a brand new Timothy E. shop which caters, in the parlance of men’s wear, to the seven-inch drop crowd (shoulders narrowing to a teeny waist and absolutely no hips). The Timothy E. shop is wood textured and painted chocolate brown, quite the handsomest spot in the store with the buttery soft leather jackets and Yves St. Laurent made-in-Hong Kong shirts. But the boutique is empty. “It hasn’t quite caught on,” murmurs the manager.

Customers skirt the shop as if some particularly nasty virus is nurtured in the butcher block fixtures and dark brown ambience. It underlines Purchase’s attitude: “Our customers,” he says, his eyes narrowing as if to peer over the foothills at clouds of locust, “are more conservative.” Laxdal is a little more explicit: “I’d say,” he remarks, sitting at the store’s speciality— good fast-food counters —“that people like Bernie Brodeur are just a little bit—fast."

On the streets a random survey indicates Winnipeggers are as keen to brighten up their homes with well-designed beakers and brass bedsteads as any trendy Easterner. In Edmonton when Eaton’s executives unbent and remodeled their store, boutique fashion business increased 325%. Calgary is considered a more entrepreneurial town so it’s allowed to see some of § the avant-garde Eaton’s commercials § banned elsewhere in the West. But WinniS peggers, like Mennonites, are expected to walk with their eyes cast down. This patronizing view of the Western consumer threatens Eaton’s effort to get the new merchandising policy on the road. In spite of market share slippage, the Winnipeg store and Western regions carry a lot of weight in the Eaton Empire. An embolism in the West could prove fatal. But the most single-minded obstruction to the new merchandising policy comes from the exalted seat of power in the East.

The Image Makers: Just when memories of December 12 were receding nicely, Eaton’s Toronto advertising offices launched a spring preview of fashions. The booklet was 52 pages and tucked into the Saturday edition of the March 6,1976, Toronto Star. It was printed on glossy paper with color photos that took the controversial December 12 adjust one stage further. Except for one pilot in some mock-up shots of an airplane field, there was not a male model to be seen. What the female models were doing, however, was too much for the Canadian psyche.

The high-class hooker look is a staple of fashion photography these days. Eaton’s, leavening this with the common touch, kept the hooker look and left out the highclass. Response was immediate. Credit cards cut in two were mailed to head office. Mail from decidedly middle-class homes poured in. Every sentence was a knife in the heart of the with-its. “I am beginning to wonder,” wrote one customer, “if Eaton’s has been turned into a pornographic sex shop to induce female homosexuality ... I am sure that Timothy and John David are turning over in their graves at this moment.” Lectured another: “Eaton’s grew based on basic principles which never wavered with the change in fashion and advertising. Now ...” A few letters of approval surfaced but they may not have come from the right sources. “While the approach is controversial,” wrote one person, “the artistic quality is unquestionable. I feel like hanging the centrefold on my dining-room wall — permanently.” At about the same time Eaton’s new look in television commercials was going on the air. Called “lifestyle” commercials, they were produced in Toronto and sold awareness and an image rather than specific merchandise. The Eaton’s people in British Columbia refused to show any of them, indicating what they thought of models cavorting about in Thirties hairdos jotting down notes in lipstick. The Western Region people gritted their teeth and in the name of party unity took the Timothy E. commercial, and allowed as how the Attitude Shop commercial was “alright” for Edmonton only. The sportswear commercial, set in a pink bedroom complete with white cat and phone, chaise lounge and armoire, barely made it out of Ontario.R. H. Bradshaw, Eaton’s advertising and sales promotion manager, insisted that “Our marketing research shows all the commercials were highly effective.” But according to inside sources, the marketing research (highly suspect at the best of times) shows that target groups who viewed the commercials have grave doubts about Timothy E.’s sexual proclivities and were highly skeptical that any of the snazzy merchandise shown could be found at Eaton’s. Everyone in the industry agreed that the commercials, which were estimated to cost about $25,000 apiece, were unbeatable for production values, editing and camera work. “But,” said Barry Agnew, national sales manager for Hudson’s Bay, “they fly in the face of just who the department store customer is. I’m very skeptical about what they’re going to do for Eaton’s.”

Sometime in early 1976 a commercial for Eaton’s Number One Shop (Junior/Women’s sportswear) was shown. The date is unclear.like most details surrounding the commercial. It was a bright, tightly edited piece of work, which, according to the script, depicted a “Fonzy” type character in a Fifties snackbar. A lot happened during its 60 seconds. Models decked out in the briefest of shorts danced their legs off around a disreputable greaser. When the pulsating music ended the fickle flirts had taken off with a Timothy E. type. A voice breathlessly urged viewers to “Take a Look At Eaton’s.” One of the viewers taking a look was Mrs. Signy Eaton, the redoubtable widow of John David Eaton. Mrs. Eaton took a very good look. As friends tell it, she was speechless. When she had recovered herself she picked up the phone to call Ralph W. Peck, vice-president of Toronto and Ontario stores. As Peck tells it “the decision to take the commercial off the air was all mine.” But the Eaton fiat had been invoked and conservative forces knew their position was strengthened. The reaction was predictable. President Earl Orser rediscovered “the mature customer who is the loyal base of our business. We must not forget her and I will not be party to a policy that has no place for her.” New commer-

cials appeared with a folksy touch. Jolly little children scrambled around Eaton’s latest technological breakthrough “Colortree Paint.” Said Stan Shortt, v-p merchandising and distribution: “I support our new merchandising strategy, but I think we have to do more product advertising and less lifestyle emphasis.” Then looking out of the window he sighed: “I know some people in Eaton’s will feel we move too slowly and we’ll probably lose them to other stores. So be it. I wish them well.”

Prognosis: The two Eaton’s salesladies were arguing in the better housewares section. “What do you think this thing is?” one saleslady asked the other, pointing to a new shipment of Italian wine carafes. “Well I’m sure I don’t know,” was the reply, “but a customer suggested they could be used for bud vases.” The first saleslady was perplexed. “I suppose so, but why do you think they’d have 1-i-t-r-e written all up the side?” “What do you expect,” answered the other, taking refuge in a non sequitur, “things are changing at Eaton’s so fast these days.”

Whatever happens with the new merchandising policy a lot of shoppers are enjoying it while it lasts. Eaton’s boutiques don’t look bad against the high-pressured, pricey versions lining sand-blasted streets across Canada. Whether Eaton’s can bring this merchandising savvy into every department remains to be seen. Doubters claim Eaton’s lacks one essential ingredient: ruthlessness. New York sources tell of a recent meeting with Vogue magazine. The magazine suggested names for future suppliers. “Krizia, Celine, St. Laurent,” enthused a Vogue editor, tortoiseshell glasses steaming with excitement. “I don’t think so,” replied the Eaton’s executive. “Most of those people have contracts with other Canadian stores.” The Vogue people looked perplexed. “But contracts come up for renewal,” said the editor, “Get in there and grab them.” The Eaton’s executive was firm. “That,” he is reported to have said, “wouldn’t be our way.”

The curious fact about all of this is that the corporate battle at Eaton’s is not over power but philosophy. The fight for the hearts and minds of the Canadian pocketbook is really a debate over the values and sophistication of Canadians. Eaton’s is more than a department store, it is a Canadian institution. It doesn’t tell the country where to go, but it reflects more accurately than practically anything else just where this country is going. In a peculiarly Canadian way it does so at ponderous glacial speed. Bemie Brodeur’s yen for hip-looking chicks and Stingray cars may be floweringjust when the real leading edge of our society is returning to a genuine conservatism in lifestyle and fashions. Eaton’s is like a barometer showing with unerring accuracy yesterday’s weather. Knowing too much about tomorrow would be, well, just too fast.