What Target Got Wrong in Canada

After Target’s quick Canadian demise, we’d expect that US retailers would finally take the time to understand the nuances that distinguish We The North as a distinct culture from the US.

With Nordstrom’s recent opening in Toronto, they should be prepared for Canadians’ quickly changing season of interest when US department stores set up in our neighborhoods. It’s not that Canadians don’t like to shop for great brands and luxury goods, it’s just that…well, we are a tad more reserved than our brothers and sisters to the south.

But while Canadians may seem more reserved at home in Canada, when we travel south to shop, we shake off our reserved cloak and free the unreserved, adventure seeker. This is where Nordstrom needs to take heed— when we look closely we see that adventure and story is at the root of the Canadian relationship with US retailers.

Not so long ago we did a large ethnographic study for Target as they prepared to enter Canada. We discovered that for Canadian women, the act of shopping at Target was almost a mythological event. Women planned Target road trips with friends and daughters. The shopping event would also include visits to mythic restaurants (think Cheesecake Factory) and other retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods. The challenge we saw for Target was that when they moved into people’s neighborhoods, they were stripping away the magic of the full experience; planning for the trip to Target with friends and family, the road trip fun and connection, discovering great brands and sharing great finds were the ingredients for the stories women told upon their return. The entire brand relationship was one of experience and storytelling that would start long before anyone stepped into a Target.

But when Target arrived in Canada, gone was the adventure and the story. What we experienced was a rebranding of Zellers and this, in my opinion, was the death knell for Target. If Target had chosen non-fashion real estate sites such as Future Shop’s now empty stores, they might have had a chance. But people already had a relationship with the Zellers retail space and when folks walked into Target it was like walking into a fresher Zellers. We parked in the same parking lot, entered through the same doors, looked up at a red logo, all activating familiar memory bytes tied to Zellers. There was no adventure and no new story create— the magic that had once been Target went out in a dull splash of red.

It makes us wonder if Canadians have a cultural bias against US luxury retailers being in their neighborhoods? We’re certainly more restrained when we shop for luxury items at home, but a shopping adventure to the US seems to be freeing. It seems it’s the experience we’ve come to love more than the items we purchase.

So Nordstrom, you may need a different business model for us Canadian shoppers, one that curates a magical experience and where stories are the measure of success, not just great customer service. In fact, it might be worth taking a page out of the Saks model of 1926, when women flocked with friends to have private fashion shows and indoor golf and ski lessons. Or check out the new Saks store in New York City, offering services like the “Power Lunch” where, in 60 minutes, customers get a style consultation, beauty treatment and a bite to eat. Or maybe it’s a curated personalized change room, pre-stocked with your style. Bottom line, in an age where experience matters more than stuff, Nordstrom will need to curate share-worthy experiences that spark the excitement and anticipation we once enjoyed when we packed ourselves into cars or planes and headed over the border.

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