HBC is bringing back the Zellers brand

Hudson’s Bay Co. is bringing back discount retail brand Zellers inside its Hudson’s Bay stores, more than a decade after selling the store leases to U.S. retailer Target Corp.

The company declined interview requests about the relaunch, but said in a release Wednesday that it plans to resurrect Zellers in major cities across the country. It also plans to launch a new Zellers.ca ecommerce site, part of a stated objective to make the revived brand a “digital-first shopping journey.”

The company said that new Zellers brand “taps into the nostalgia of the brand Canadians know and love, while introducing a refreshed identity and a unique and exciting product assortment for families at everyday value.”

Anchor categories at launch will include housewares and home décor, furniture, small appliances, toys, and pet accessories, as well as what it described as a “design-led, value-driven private brand.” The company said that the product assortment and categories will grow throughout the year, including the introduction of apparel.

Hudson’s Bay first resurrected the Zeller’s brand last year as a pop-up shop in a Toronto-area Hudson’s Bay store, suggesting that other pop-ups would follow. At the time, there was some speculation that the pop-up was a trial balloon to see if the brand still resonated with Canadian shoppers.

Hudson’s Bay did not say how much space within its stores would be allocated for the Zellers pop-ups.

Before its demise, Zellers’ marketing was famous for brand mascot Zeddy and its longtime positioning “The Lowest Price is the Law.”

Zellers’ chief business officer Adam Powell acknowledged in the release that the slogan was a “calling card” that helped the banner “establish itself as more than a retail destination, but a place to build and support community.”

HBC has been working with FCB Canada for creative, but a spokesperson said it would not be the agency for the Zellers brand.

Last month, longtime Loblaws marketer Shelley Tangney announced on LinkedIn that she was joining the company as divisional vice-president, marketing, for Zellers. She had spent more than nine years in various marketing roles with Loblaw.

“There couldn’t be a better time to join North America’s oldest retailer and most iconic, purpose-driven, digital-first brand to help re-write the rules of retail,” said Tangney in her post.

Launched in 1932 by Walter Zeller, Zeller’s positioned itself in the early days as “retailers to thrifty Canadians.” It had grown to 155 stores across the country by 1976 launching several innovations along the way, including the first in-store restaurant, the Skillet, as well as an auto-centre and its first store in a suburban mall.

It reached $1 billion in revenue in 1983, passed $2 billion mark in 1989, and $3 billion by 1993, but its momentum was slowed by the arrival of U.S. retail giant Walmart in 1994. In 2011, after years of slumping sales, HBC announced that it had reached a deal to sell the leases of 189 Zellers stores to Target for $1.8 billion.

Zellers’ generally cheery and wholesome marketing turned towards the darkly humorous after the company announced the sale. One memorable 2012 spot featured a fictional CEO informing Zeddy that “Everything must go, and that includes you,” before unceremoniously dumping the mascot in the woods.

A subsequent spot saw Zeddy alone and afraid, trying to befriend an old tin can and struggling to subsist on berries (which gave him terrible stomach cramps). The mascot was subsequently adopted by Camp Trillium, an Ontario non-profit supporting children undergoing cancer treatment.

Ironically given the fanfare that accompanied Target’s arrival in Canada Zellers would end up outlasting the U.S. retailerin Canada. It’s ill-fated stint in Canada began in 2013 and was over just two years later, while two Zellers stores in Ottawa and Toronto remained open until 2020.

But Canadians continued to (somewhat) fondly remember the brand even after its demise. In 2020, the social media star Brittlestar created a video tribute called “Moving Target,” in which he lamented the chain’s departure, even while acknowledging that people did tend to view the often frumpy retailer through Zellers-red coloured glasses.

“Zellers is a brand deeply rooted in the Canadian experience,” said Powell. “Spanning generations, people hold distinct connections to Zellers through shared experiences with family and friends, and we look forward to building on that in the future.”

Chris Powell