The Little Store That Could

Toronto Eaton Centre in 1930.

On this day 142 years ago, Timothy Eaton opened his first store at 178 Yonge St. at what is now the south end of the Toronto Eaton Centre. T. Eaton & Co. was a dry goods store and haberdashery; it paled in size and selection to the Eaton stores of the 20th century, but the little shop was just the beginning of a storied retail history that ended with bankruptcy in 1999.

Eaton, an Irish-immigrant, would revolutionize Canada’s retail landscape many times over, starting with cash-only sales and refunds for unsatisfactory goods. He introduced the beloved mail-order catalogue in 1884, expanding his business to rural and isolated consumers who had few other retail options. It wasn’t until 1907 that the company opened its second store in Winnipeg to great fanfare and success. The Eaton empire grew and was reported to account for 60 per cent of Canadian department store sales in 1930.

Eaton even sponsored the annual Toronto Santa Claus Parade starting in 1905. The first parade saw Santa arrive at Union Station to be escorted up Yonge Street to the store by the Eaton family. For a number of years, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parades were also held in Winnipeg and Montreal. In 1982, with financial worries looming the company pulled out of the Toronto sponsorship.

The chain’s success couldn’t be sustained with changes in the market place, including increased competition from American retailers like Wal-Mart and the big-box store trend of the 1990’s. Traditional department stores were in decline, and a failure by the family-run business to stay competitive led to bankruptcy protection filings in 1997. Last-ditch efforts included taking the company public and closing some of its more than 90 outlets. It didn’t work. In 1999, Sears Canada acquired its assets for $50 million, closing most Eaton’s locations, converting some to Sears stores and selling the remaining real estate. By 2002, Sears had abandoned the Eaton’s brand entirely and closed the remaining seven stores.

-Tara Losinski