The T. Eaton Co. Limited grew to become a retail and social institution in Canada, with stores across the country, buying offices across the globe, and a catalogue that found itself in the homes of most Canadians. Eaton's was well known for its customer service, as expressed in its long-standing slogan "Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded. A rapidly changing economic and retail environment in the late 20th century proved difficult for Eaton’s, and the chain went bankrupt in 1999.
The first store was only 24 by 60 feet in size (7.3 by 18.3 metres), with two shop windows, and was located a fair distance from Toronto’s then fashionable shopping district of King Street West. In its first year of operation, staff consisted of “two men, a woman and a boy”, with Timothy Eaton responsible for buying the goods to stock the store. Expectations were low that a store with a no credit and no haggling policy would succeed.
Nonetheless, the business prospered, and its growth matched the rapid growth of Toronto in the late 19th century. When further expansion of the existing store became impossible, Timothy Eaton moved his business one block north in August 1883 into much larger premises at 190 Yonge Street. The new store boasted the biggest plate-glass windows in Toronto, the first electric lights in any Canadian store, three full floors of retail space featuring 35 departments, and a light-well that ran the full-length of the store. The store’s first telephone, with phone number 370, was installed in 1885. In 1886, the first elevator in a retail establishment in Toronto was installed in the Eaton store (although only customers “going up” were invited to use the elevator, thus requiring them to pass by the various store displays on their walk down).
Despite the move to 190 Yonge Street, Timothy Eaton maintained the lease on the empty store at 178 Yonge Street until its expiry in 1884, in order to delay the expansion plans of one of his competitors, Robert Simpson. Over time, the competition between the Simpson's and Eaton’s department stores, facing each other across Queen Street West, became one of Toronto’s great business rivalries. As both businesses expanded into retail chains across Canada, the Eaton’s/Simpson’s rivalry was at one time as central to Canadian retailing as the Macy's/Gimbel's competition was to New York City’s retail history. The pedestrian crosswalk on Queen Street West, just to the west of the intersection with Yonge Street, was for years one of the busiest in Canada, as thousands of shoppers a day comparison shopped between Eaton’s and Simpson’s.
By 1896, Eaton’s was billing itself as “Canada’s Greatest Store”. The store continued to expand in size, and new buildings were constructed to house the mail order division and the Eaton’s factories. The number of people employed in the various Eaton’s operations numbered 17,500 in 1911. In 1919, the golden jubilee of the store, the Eaton’s buildings in Toronto contained a floor space of over 60 acres, and occupied several city blocks between Yonge Street and Bay Street, north of Queen Street West.
John Craig Eaton, the son of Timothy Eaton, became an early proponent of building a combined store and mail order operation in Winnipeg. Although Timothy Eaton initially had misgivings over the difficulties involved in managing a store 2100 kilometres from Toronto, John Craig was eventually able to convince his father to bless the project. Eaton's acquired a city block on Portage Avenue at Donald Street, and the five-storey Eaton's store opened to much fanfare on July 15, 1905. Timothy Eaton and his family were on hand for the opening of the second Eaton's store, with the Winnipeg Daily Tribune noting in its front page headline: "The Canadian Napoleon of Retail Commerce Reaches the Capital - Views His Great Store for First Time - Well Pleased".
The landmark red brick store, known as "the Big Store" to Winnipeggers, was an instant success. The initial staff of 750 grew to 1200 within a few weeks of the opening. By 1910, three more storeys were added to the store and other buildings were constructed. By 1919, the Eaton's operations in Winnipeg covered 21 acres and employed 8000 people.
For many years, the Winnipeg Eaton's store was considered the most successful department store in the world, given how it dominated its local market. As late as the 1960s, Canadian Magazine estimated that Winnipeggers spent more than 50 cents of every shopping dollar (excluding groceries) at Eaton's, and that on a busy day, one out of every ten Winnipeggers would visit the Portage Avenue store.
The store founded by Timothy Eaton was not the first department store in the world, nor was the Eaton’s store the first to offer fixed prices and a money-back guarantee. Nonetheless, the success of Eaton’s revolutionized department store retailing in North America. American retailers flocked to view the “retail palaces” on Yonge Street and Portage Avenue, anxious to replicate Timothy Eaton’s methods south of the border. Until the 1950s, Eaton's promoted itself as the "largest retail organization in the British Empire".
In 1905, The Globe wrote: “There is hardly a name in Canada, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister, so well known to the people at large as that of Mr. Timothy Eaton.” Timothy Eaton died in 1907, and was succeeded by John Craig Eaton as President of the T. Eaton Co. Limited.
The company’s success continued under Timothy’s heir. In 1911, Saturday Night magazine declared: “Never before in the history of the world has it been possible for a store to be run on this humanitarian basis of beauty, use and efficiency. All of Canada is proud of Eaton’s; and Canada should be, for here we find a store that has set the world a pace in modern merchandising.” In the same year, the Illustrated London News stated: “The T. Eaton Co. of Toronto can claim their stores are the greatest in the British Empire.”
In 1925, Eaton’s purchased the Goodwin’s store in Montreal. By 1927, Montreal boasted a new six-storey Eaton’s store on Saint Catherine Street, which was expanded to nine storeys in 1930. Over time, Eaton’s stores opened in other cities across the country.
In 1977, the crown jewel of the Eaton's empire, the Toronto Eaton Centre, opened in downtown Toronto, replacing two previous downtown Eaton's stores. The massive complex — stretching 400 m on several levels from Dundas to Queen Street and boasting 200 stores — was anchored at the north end by an immense nine-storey Eaton's.
The first Eaton's catalogue was a simple 34-page booklet, issued in 1884. Inside the front cover was the declaration: “Owing to the immense increase in our Mail Order Department, we find it has become a necessity to issue a catalogue of this style, and even this is incomplete, in that it contains only a limited description of the stock, and therefore does not give you a correct idea as to the immense varieties and extensive stock carried by us”.
As Eaton’s grew, so did the catalogue. By 1920, Eaton’s operated mail order warehouses in Winnipeg, Toronto and Moncton to serve its catalogue customers. Catalogue order offices were also established throughout the country, with the first opening in Oakville in 1916.
To many, the catalogue became known as the Homesteader's Bible or the Wishing Book. It was often said that only two books mattered in a typical Canadian home: the family Bible and the Eaton's catalogue. At a time when Canada’s population was predominantly rural, often living in isolated settlements, the Eaton’s catalogue provided a selection of goods that was otherwise unavailable to many Canadians. Moreover, it served an important economic role, as it broke local monopolies and allowed all Canadians access to the prices and selection enjoyed in some of the larger cities. The catalogue offered everything from clothing to farming implements. Some Canadians even purchased their homes from the catalogue, with Eaton’s delivering to them all the materials necessary to build a small, prefabricated house. Today, a large number of “Eaton’s catalogue homes” still exist throughout the country, primarily in the West. The catalogue had many other uses, ranging from its use as a learning tool by settlers learning to speak English, to its use as goalie pads during pond hockey games.
The catalogue became an icon of Canadian culture, even appearing in many works of Canadian literature. The most famous example, in Roch Carrier's story The Hockey Sweater, a young Quebec boy asks his mother for a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey from the Eaton's catalogue, but receives a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead. As the family is francophone, the mother does not order using the catalogue forms but instead writes a note and sends money to the department store. Because of the prevalent language and cultural barriers of the English- and French-speaking Canadian populations, his family is unaware that the item could be exchanged, and they do not wish to offend Mr. Eaton by returning it.
Over time, the catalogue became a less profitable operation, and by the 1970s, it was a money-losing proposition. As Canada’s population became more urban over the course of the 20th century, Canadians had access to a greater number of local stores, and were less reliant on catalogue purchases. By the mid-1970s, it was estimated that 60% of the suburban customers throughout Canada lived within a thirty-minute drive of an Eaton’s store. Others, however, blamed Eaton’s management for the catalogue’s failures, pointing to the similar Simpsons-Sears catalogue (now the Sears Canada catalogue), which continues to this day even though it has never enjoyed the iconic status or popularity of the Eaton’s catalogue.
At a news conference on January 14, 1976, Eaton’s announced that the 1976 spring-summer catalogue would be the last. 9000 mail-order employees were out of work. Many Canadians were in shock. In one notable incident, Barbara Frum of CBC Radio’s As It Happens opened her interview of Eaton’s president Earl Orser with the question “Mr. Orser, how could you?”
Eaton sponsored the annual Toronto Santa Claus Parade. The first parade took place on December 2, 1905. For a number of years, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parades were also held in Winnipeg and Montreal. Macy’s in New York started its own annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924 due largely to the success of the Eaton’s parades north of the border.
By the 1950s, the Toronto parade was the largest in North America, stretching for a mile and a half and involving thousands of participants. It was broadcast live on radio and television in Canada, and even CBS television in the United States broadcast the parade for a number of years.
In August 1982, Eaton’s announced that it would no longer sponsor the Santa Claus Parade, due to increasing costs. A consortium of local businesses saved the parade, which continues to be held every year, but another cherished Eaton’s institution was gone.
In 1899, francophone catalogue customers were publicly invited to contact Eaton’s in French, although a number of them had been doing so for years. In 1927, Eaton’s published its first all-French catalogue. In the Montreal store, sales staff were predominantly bilingual, with advertising, posters and signs appearing in both English and French.
Nonetheless, by the early 1960s, Eaton’s was seen by many in the emerging Quebec nationalist movement as a symbol of English Canadian hegemony. It was, for instance, at Eaton's stores that some francophone Quebeckers were reportedly told to "speak white," in turn inspiring another famous work of Quebec literature, Michèle Lalonde's poem Speak White As a consequence, Eaton's stores in Quebec dropped the English possessive in the chain's name, becoming simply Eaton. A few years later it undertook a major effort to woo French language Quebeckers, by increasing the number of francophone staff, increasing the predominance of the French language on store signage, and spending millions on marketing efforts in the French-language media. A similar effort was made by The Bay (la Baie), the other formerly "Anglo" chain in Quebec. As a result, Eaton's and The Bay grew and grew again in Quebec all through the late 1960s and 1970s by taking a large part of the customer base which had formerly gone to "French-only" department stores such as Sauvé and Dupuis, which eventually closed down.
In the 1970s and 1980s, through the provincial government's Ontario Downtown Renewal Programme, Eaton's was a partner in the development of downtown malls in smaller cities, intended to foster the revitalization of urban cores. As the chain formed the anchor of many of these shopping centres, these often carried the "Eaton Centre" name. Nearly all these malls — in cities such as Sarnia, Brantford and Guelph — had high vacancy rates and poor patronage, and contributed to the store's financial problems.
Retailing and land use trends in the last decades of the 20th century did not favour Eaton’s. Traditional department stores, including (but not limited to) Eaton’s, commanded an ever-shrinking share of the Canadian retail dollar, as big box stores, such as Wal-Mart and Zellers, and specialty stores (the so-called “category killers”) expanded their respective shares of retail sales. With the advent of urban sprawl, most Canadian downtown shopping districts (which were historically dominated by Eaton's) had to increasingly share the retail sales pie with growing suburban shopping areas (where Eaton’s was just one of many competitors).
Stores that once served as landmarks in their respective communities were not renovated. New Eaton’s stores built since the 1960s were largely indistinguishable from other chain stores, further reducing Eaton’s status as a destination store.
The end of the catalogue and of the Eaton’s Santa Claus parades, though being cost-saving measures, helped to sever the emotional links between Canadians and the Eaton’s chain.
The chain that had touted itself in the 1940s and 1950s as “The Store for Young Canada” lost touch with younger customers, and unintentionally became known as a chain that catered to older shoppers. Once known for its superior customer service (with its staff proudly known as "Eatonians"), Eaton's began to cut back on sales staff and training in an effort to trim costs. A chain that had once prided itself on its buying offices throughout the globe and on the unique and diverse goods that it offered its customers had, by the latter half of the twentieth century, an antiquated supply chain and a haphazard and confused approach to merchandising. One apocryphal tale states that once the women of the Eaton family stopped shopping at Eaton’s, the chain was doomed.
In one particularly disastrous move, Eaton’s moved to an “Everyday Value Pricing” strategy (also known as "Eaton Value") in 1991, which meant that all discounts and sales, including Eaton’s famous Trans-Canada Sale, were eliminated. The strategy quickly drove away customers, but was inexplicably continued for four years before it was abandoned.
In 1997, seeing the apparent success of The Bay in higher-end retailing, Eaton's lured their chief executive George Kosich over to try to duplicate the strategy. Hudson's Bay Company filed a lawsuit saying that Kosich had violated his employment contract. Eaton's had also sued HBC for poaching several of its executives; apparently HBC had done this in retaliation for the hiring of Kosich. Aside from that controversy, the new retailing strategy was not only unsuccessful, it also gave rival Sears Canada the opportunity to move up to the market segment long dominated by Eaton's. Kosich resigned in 1998 and was replaced by chairman Brent Ballantyne.
The chain, which controlled almost 60% of all department store sales in Canada in 1930, had been reduced to a market share of 10.6% in 1997. The T. Eaton Co. Limited first filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997. At the time, the company had an estimated 24 500 employees and over 90 retail outlets. The plan was to close 31 underperforming stores, including two-thirds of its stores in Alberta. However, Eaton's limited the number of store closures to 20. George Eaton, the last of the family to be involved in management, resigned as chief executive in 1997, being succeeded by George Kosich. In September of that year, creditors approved the restructuring plan.
In 1998, George Eaton resigned as chairman of the board and was succeeded by Brent Ballantyne, under whom the company was taken public for the first time in its history, issuing 11.7 million common shares at $15 each, while the Eaton family retained control with a 51 percent stake.
The chain finally folded in 1999 after operating for 130 years. Though it had reduced its retail outlets to 64, it finished 1998 with a net loss of $72 million, and it announced further closures and a corporate restructuring plan. This was unsuccessful and the company went bankrupt in August 1999.
Eaton's corporate assets were acquired by Sears Canada in a $50-million deal. Sears purchased all the shares of T. Eaton Co., eight of its stores, with the option to buy five more, and the Eaton's name, trademarks, brands, and Web site. For the first time in its history, Sears held the leases to a number of prime locations in Toronto (Eaton Centre and Yorkdale Mall), Vancouver (Pacific Centre), Victoria, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Calgary (all former Eaton's stores). Sears had intended to obtain the former downtown Montreal store, although it lost out to the incumbent Les Ailes de la Mode.
Sears Canada closed some Eaton's stores, converted others to Sears stores, sold others to The Bay, and kept a number of downtown stores with the intention of relaunching eatons in 2000 as a more high-end, modern brand, with a lowercase "e" in a circle as its logo and a splashy ad campaign built around the colour aubergine. Sears also launched an eatons catalogue, with the intent to complement Sears' moderate catalogue assortment with something more upscale and urban. According to Rick Brown, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Sears Canada, merchandise was supposed to be priced above the level of Sears Canada and The Bay, but below Holt Renfrew.
In actuality, however, Sears had trouble securing name brand merchandise consistent with the image of the new chain. This was mainly because of Eaton's bankruptcy. It was also because of doubt in Sears' ability to manage an upper-end chain, since until recently their merchandise was of lower price and quality compared to the old Eaton's and The Bay. George Heller, then-president of rival department store The Bay, publicly warned vendors not to supply the new eatons with merchandise. Many mid-to-upper tier brands, particularly in clothing, feared reprisal and avoided the new eatons.
The entire overhaul was planned beyond Sears' abilities - less than eight months to open the new eatons, while managing Sears at the same time. The new eatons was scheduled to open September 1, 2000, but was pushed back three times, eventually opening November 25. Consequently, eatons had missed much of the lucrative holiday season and opened with merchandise already marked down. Construction was also haphazard; all stores opened unfinished and renovations would continue well into 2001.
Consequently, the seven-store experiment was not particularly successful, and Sears Canada President Paul Walters was forced to resign. He was replaced by a former rival and Sears Roebuck executive from the U.S., Mark Cohen, who prioritized Sears over eatons and cut back aggressively on markdown strategies. By March 2001 Sears announces they were ceasing publication of the newly resurrected eatons catalogue "due to a lack of interest". Although Mark Cohen officially announced the eatons chain saw an impressive rebound in June 2001, by 2002 he retired the "eatons" name. This was the same time that Walters had previously forecast expansion for the new eatons, growing to 14 stores across Canada. It converted the remaining stores to Sears, including the flagship Eaton Centre store located at the Toronto Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto.
Although the Eaton's chain is no more, several shopping centres in Canada continue to be called Eaton Centres, most notably the Toronto Eaton Centre, the Centre Eaton in downtown Montreal and the Calgary Eaton Centre. In fact, the Toronto Eaton Centre is the number one tourist attraction in Toronto, with over one million visitors a week. The fact that one of North America’s top shopping and tourist destinations is located on this stretch of Yonge Street is due, in large part, to Timothy Eaton’s original decision in the 19th century to establish his store at this location. (For more details about Eaton Centre malls across Canada, see Eaton Centre).
Similarly, the former Eaton’s store in Montreal, also designed by Ross and Macdonald, remains a landmark on Saint Catherine Street, and is currently occupied by a large shopping mall. After being closed for several years following Eaton's bankruptcy, the famous 9th floor restaurant in the downtown Montreal store was recently restored by Fournier, Gersovitz, Moss et associés, a Montreal architectural firm. It is protected as a registered historical site, because of its rich Art deco design.
Another Ross and Macdonald-designed landmark, the former Eaton's store in downtown Saskatoon, now serves as the offices of the Saskatoon Board of Education. The long-time downtown Calgary store, designed by Ross and Macdonald in the 1920s, was largely demolished in 1988, although two facades were preserved and incorporated into a new Holt Renfrew store as part of the Calgary Eaton Centre redevelopment.
The original downtown Vancouver store, on Hastings Street, also remains and now serves as the downtown "Harbour Centre" campus of Simon Fraser University. Some Vancouver residents associate this heritage building with the Spencer's Department Store (which commissioned the construction of the store), rather than Eaton's (which bought Spencer's in 1948 and occupied the store until the 1970s). In fact, the former Eaton's store is today known as the "Spencer Building".
Not all former Eaton’s stores are architectural landmarks: the stores constructed from the 1960s onwards were typically architecturally inferior to their predecessors. Notably, the exterior of the Toronto Eaton Centre store can best be described as a mustard-coloured box, and is generally considered (from an architectural perspective) to be a poor replacement for the demolished Main Store. Designed in the style of the 1970s and intended at that time to be a statement of Eaton's dominance and its future aspirations, the "modern" design of this behemoth has not aged well (despite efforts by Sears Canada in 1999-2000 to improve the look of the building facades). Similarly, the main Vancouver store, connected to the downtown Pacific Centre mall, was also built in the 1970s as a large, white box.
After the demise of Eaton’s, most stores were quietly converted to other retail banners or other uses, with the downtown Winnipeg store generating the most controversy. When the store was emptied in late 1999, various alternative uses for the building (including residential condominiums) were considered, and ultimately all rejected. After a highly emotional civic debate, which included a “group hug” of the “Big Store” by hundreds of people in 2001, the store was demolished in 2002 to make way for a hockey arena, the MTS Centre. In one concession to history, red bricks were incorporated into the design of the arena façade, evoking the memory of the Eaton’s store that had once graced Portage Avenue. An original store window and Tyndall stone surround is mounted in the arena concourse to house a collection of Eaton's memorabilia.
The Toronto statue is now exhibited in the Royal Ontario Museum. The Winnipeg statue was housed in the suburban Polo Park mall for a few years after 1999, until the Hudson's Bay Company opened a Bay store at that location and wanted the statue of its former competitor removed. After a tussle with the Eaton family, who wanted to move the statue to St Marys, Ontario, the Manitoba government declared it a provincial heritage object. It now sits in the city's new arena, the MTS Centre, one floor up from nearly the same spot where it stood in the old store. Museum-goers in Toronto and hockey fans in Winnipeg continue to rub Timothy’s toe for luck.