Today, everyone in Ontario is losing their gourd over the grand opening of 17 Target Canada stores. This includes three Toronto locations: East York Town Centre, Centrepoint Mall and Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke. Another one, at Shoppers World Danforth, is scheduled for its soft opening March 28. These ribbon-cuttings follow the launch of Target Canada's first three Ontario stores earlier this month in Fergus, Milton and Guelph, where the first items purchased were a Tarzan DVD and Michael Bolton Greatest Hits CD, purchases by U of Guelph kids trolling (successfully) for their fifteen minutes.
In Toronto, Target Canada has attempted to unify its two-tone aesthetic of nested concentric circles within a broader urban colour palette, with red-and-white billboards of red-and-white streetcars and vaguely glassy modern architecture and OCAD and a silhouette of the CN Tower and the words "CAN'T WAIT TO MEET YOU NEIGHBOUR," with "NEIGHBOUR" appearing the biggest and most prominent as if to say, "Ha-ha you spell neighbour with a u."
Besides that being the correct spelling of "neighbour," there's really no reason to get neighbourly - or even neighborly [sic] - with Target, even as they conspicuously park their wood-paneled station wagons in front of abandoned Zellers stores and unload their tacky wares into Canada, seducing us with a friendly wave and a thick, affectedly genial Minnesotan accent.
Stateside, the Minneapolis-based Target Corporation ranks just behind Walmart, pulling in at No. 2 in the discount-retail sector. Target's ads position the chain as the middle class's alternative to Walmart. Some people call it Tarjét, imbuing that last syllable with a mock-haughty Francophilic lilt. Basically, Walmart is for poor people who can't afford to shop anywhere else. Whereas Target, though still a discount brand, is for savvy shoppers who love a bargain, whether or not they actually need one. So where Walmart usually has an on-site McDonald's, Target Canada stores will feature built-in Starbucks. Target's whole corporate identity positions it as the un-Walmart.
It's one of those yin/yang, Coke/Pepsi deals. I.e., Pepsi has to develop a brand identity that's somehow different than Coke, playing up the fact that it'll make you feel young and full of vim and vigor and aspartame, where Coke - apart from actively marketing its role in the Coca-colonization of the entire planet - basically just has to shrug its shoulders like, "I dunno. It's Coke. Everyone drinks it. You know you're going to drink it." But just as both canned sugar-waters are for all intents and purposes the exact same thing, the arrival of the un-Walmart to Canada forces us to ask if it's really any different than Walmart. Does Target's well-tailored media savvy and flashy mod upholstery actually mean anything?
Well, no. Of course not. In the States, Target Corp. is guilty to a lot of the same lousy worst-pratices that define Walmart's retail philosophy. As a CNN Money report from 2005 pointed out, Target is able to get away a bit cleaner precisely because it's pulls in at number two, with Walmart being perceived as the sole dictator of market practices and bearing the brunt of media scrutiny in turn. (It's like when you're speeding and you go just a bit slower than someone who is speeding faster than you, so that any OPP cars patrolling the highway will pull them over before you.)
That same CNN report accused Target of stuff like inflating the minimum hours needed to qualify for healthcare, the sort of shady dealings commonly associated with Walmart. Target's also vehemently anti-union, disseminating a training video to new employees that frames not joining a union as an essential, "Don't Tread On Me!"-style human right. This ideology has migrated, in part, as Target has moved north via its Canadian subsidiary.
In 2011, Target purchased leases to 189 Zellers stores from the Hudson's Bay Company, and closed them for remodeling. They also ditched the staff - despite Target being, ostensibly, the exact same industry as Zellers. Target Canada claimed stressed that former Zellers employees would be guaranteed interviews at the new Target stores. But the Food and Commercial Workers retail union has received complaints that, in many cases, these interviews (sometimes two or three of them) have not panned out as actual jobs.
Before moving into the neighbourhood, Target made inroads at brand consolidation in Canada. In advance of its consolidation of Canadian operations, the U.S. company secured rights to the "Target" name by stepping to anyone who may be using it, from a chain of Toronto convenience stores to "Target"-branded shops opened by Toronto retail mogul Isaac Benitah, who launched his own discount retail Target Apparel stores in places like Nanaimo and Sudbury in what can only be regarded as an attempt to stymie Target Corp.'s northward expansion, while also confusing shoppers.
From the corporation's perspective, there are plenty of worthwhile reasons to elbow into the Canadian market. For one, many of our own homegrown retailers - Zellers, yes, but also Sam The Record Man and Sears (itself targeted by U.S. retailer Nordstrom) - are disappearing, resulting in market openings, as well as literal empty storefronts, that U.S. retail giants can easily occupy. We also don't shop online as much as our American cousins, our predilection for brick-and-mortar stores revealed in a Canadian retail survey called How Canada Shops. Heck, even Target's red-and-white colour scheme fits neatly into our own national aesthetic tapestry.
But there's nothing sunny or especially Canadian about Target's Canadian takeover. For one, there's no real guarantee that Target will source their fashions or anything from Canadian manufacturers. As they put it in their online vendor FAQ, "In order to deliver an authentic Target brand experience for our Canadian guests, our owned brand assortment will be similar to our U.S. stores." Though, as an olive branch compromise, Target Canada stores will be stocking Roots-brand clothes, in an overt show of Canadian identity that masks the chain's deeper, more troubling, American retail tradition.
The appeal of American retail giants in Canada also seems yoked to another, trickier-to-quantify perception of American companies as somehow being of higher quality than Canadian ones, their souped-up commercials beamed over the border from Buffalo (or Minneapolis). Sure, Zellers in its death throes was no picnic, shopping-wise - aisles strewn with errant athletic socks and breakfast cereal boxes like everyone was stocking up for a post-apocalypse as they liquidated their shelves. But it seems silly to want something as inessential as (another) discount retail mega-chain just because the U.S. has it.
It's not that Target is a discount retailer, but that it markets a discount retail mentality to middle-class Canadians who can afford better. Target imbues the Walmart mentality with a phony modish sophistication that flatters the shopper's sense of refinement while still serving as a pace car for garbage retail non-standards like union busting, wage-suppression, urban sprawl and driving down prices so low that Canadian non-mega-chain retailers can't conceivably compete.
But hey, at least you can drink a Starbucks-branded venti blonde roast with one hand while pushing a Target-branded red shopping cart with the other. That's the kind of broad corporate caricaturing that should keep Toronto's burgeoning amateur standup comedy scene afloat for six more months, you pupppppeeeeeetttttts.