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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A history of Zellers and Batman

I recently had the unmitigated pleasure of winning a complete set of these trading cards on e-bay for a very very low price. (Either the seller underestimated the value of what they were selling, or I'm a fool who overpaid for something with relatively no monetary value to anyone in the world but me. I like to think the former.)

The Batman Returns trading card set issued by Zellers in 1992!




At first glance, this isn't a very good looking set and I can understand why a collector would dismiss this as a mere 'promotional' item — which, for all intents and purposes, it was. (I'm sure the huge 'Zellers' logo on the front of the card gave it away.) The card front featured (as far I can tell) re-used art from the 1992 Topps Stadium Club Batman Returns and/or the 1992 Topps Batman Returns trading card sets and the card back was a bilingual game piece to win a Batman jacket. Additionally, the card stock was incredibly flimsy — on par with the same cardboard used for Quebec scratch-and-win lotto tickets (which seems to be the main driving force behind Quebec's economy). Another detail that seemed to turn off collectors is that, while they the same width as your traditional non-sports trading card, they were a bit taller — so they didn't fit properly in a 9-card plastic display sleeve (a little bit of the top of the card always poked out).

These cards were offered as a promotional giveaway at Zellers' checkout counters every time you bought something in 1992. My information on this campaign is spotty; I read somewhere that one card was issued per week... but that would mean that this promotional campaign lasted 24 weeks (6 months). I remember it running during the Spring and Summer of '92, coinciding with the June release of the Batman Returns film. Once upon a time, it was a joke in my neighborhood trying to trade these away. "I'll trade you my Zellers Batman Returns Batmobile card for your Marvel Series I Mr Fantastic card. ha ha." Nobody wanted these. My neighborhood was filled with Marvel fans and I think I was the only kid who cared about Batman Returns. Not one vendor in my town sold the O-Pee-Chee Batman Returns trading cards, so as far as I knew, this was *it* as far as Batman Returns trading cards went. To make matters worse, nobody kept these (expect for me — and I only had a few) because they were usually crumpled and discarded after you didn't get that missing "B", "A", "T", "M" or "N" you were hoping for. To this day, I still have no clue what the grand-prize Batman jacket looks like. 

This trading card set holds a lot of sentimental value to me. I felt like I had missed out on 1989's Batmania (due to being too young) and really wanted to get in on the ground floor for what I thought would be Batmania's second coming in 1992, so I picked up every Batman Returns-associated freebie I could get my hands on. Zellers seemed to have had a special relationship with Warner Bros./DC comics, as I seem to recall official Batman Returns clothing (i.e., t-shirts and shorts) being exclusively available at Zellers stores. You knew it was 'official' because the clothing garment came with a hologram tag. (Yes, I have some of those hologram tags stored away, too).

Batman Returns t-shirt. Image from thecaptainsvintage.com - they sell lots of cool vintage t-shirts. check em out!
Batman Returns t-shirt sold at Zellers. Loved that art! Wish I still had mine. Image from thecapatainsvintage.com


This wasn't the first Batman promotional blitz Zellers had ever run. Sometime in the late 80s, probably as a lead up to the 1989 Burton film, these animated ads appeared on local TV...

Everything except for the "Riddler reveal" is Ty Templeton's work. How about that?


...and in 1992 Zellers released an exclusive Batman comic book in which the Joker almost achieves his lifelong dream of preventing kids from Montreal, Toronto and Calgary from being able to read.

Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson illustrated the cover. Curt Swan pencilled the interiors. 

I'm remembering this comic book as being part of a promotion with some sort of loose-leaf paper company (possibly Hilroy?), and if you bought a few packs of paper you got this comic book for free. I'm also remembering that we only had French copies at our local Zellers, so nobody really took these seriously. I would've dug deeper into this story, but it just seems like DC comics decided to partner with a successful Canadian retailer to spread awareness about Batman and the upcoming films (in 1989 and 1992, respectively). A smart move on DC's behalf, since it worked on me.


Despite everything I've just recounted to you over these past few paragraphs, the most precious memories these trading cards hold for me is the memory of Zellers — a discount department retailer that no longer exists. If you don't mind, I'm going to switch gears for a minute and tell you about Zellers and what made it important. I've searched the internet and couldn't really find much about it, and feel someone owes Zellers a few words in regards to the impact it made on the lives of small-town Canadian suburbanites.



The Unofficial History of Zellers (as told by someone who lived it)


I don't know when Zellers first appeared in my small hometown of Aylmer, Quebec.  I moved there sometime in 1984, and it was already here when I arrived — so I'm going to guess it appeared sometime in the late 1970s. The actual date it appeared isn't that important. What *is* important is how this discount department store became the center of our community in a very short amount of time.

If you're still reading by this point, it's either because you were a Canadian suburbanite who grew up with a local Zellers of your own, or you grew up in Aylmer, Quebec around the same time that I did (in which I applaud you — maybe you can help corroborate my story.)

In the 1980s, Aylmer was still a relatively small suburban town which was gradually growing. Nearly everybody who lived in Aylmer worked in Ottawa, Ontario (which was about a half an hour drive away).  To paint you a vivid picture, Ottawa was akin to Aylmer the way New York City was to Poughkeepsie — unless you lived in Aylmer(or knew someone who lived there), you really had no special reason to visit.

I wouldn't call Zellers a 'magical place', but it was the only place in town where you could purchase a new pair of Levis jeans, a vinyl record, laundry detergent, an Atari video game and a picture frame all under the same roof. If I had to compare it to something modern, I'd point you towards KmartWal-Mart or Target. Funny story about those Atari games being sold at Zellers in the 80s: apparently they were knock-offs manufactured in Taiwan of "real" Atari games and sold without permission from Atari. Atari eventually made them cease-and-desist. You can read more about it in this AtariAge.com article. I think I may have bought one or two with some of my allowance money at the time. The cartridges looked like this:



I'm trying to go as far back as my memory will allow me. I first remember the Zellers in Aylmer being part of a small strip mall. The strip mall contained at least a grocery store [Super C, I think] and a TD Bank. I vividly remember the TD Bank because my mom worked there. Back in the early-to-mid eighties, the strip mall briefly had a small arcade. I remember this because my mom put up an AMBER alert when I wandered off from her side to go watch kids play at the arcade for several hours. [I think my parents bought me a leash after that incident.] Despite all of the diverse businesses within the strip mall, the most prominent signage was the Zellers logo which could be spotted like a big red beacon from a good 800 yards away. I guess that's why that strip mall, who I had no clue had a real name until about a decade ago, was colloquially known as the "Zellers mall" among us Aylmerites. Located beside the 'Zellers mall', there was a Canadian Tire (basically a department store that sold auto supplies, home and garden accessories, sporting goods, and a few other things that Zellers didn't). About two blocks down from Zellers was the only McDonalds restaurant in town. You can quickly see why the 'Zellers mall' became the nexus of our universe.

To my pre-teen self, Zellers was one of the funnest places you could visit in town. During the late 80s, when Saturday morning cartoons and action figures were in their heyday, Zellers always had the latest toys and action figures in stock. We're talking two or three aisles of floor-to-ceiling action figures, vehicles and playsets. My earliest memory of Zellers involves seeing the Super Powers Collection Batmobile on a shelf and being mesmerized with the box art. A trip to Zellers with a generous aunt or uncle could yield you a new G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe or Transformer action figure. The Zellers toy department was an event in itself, and they put a lot of effort into promoting their vast selection of toys and low low pricing (as evidenced by the aforementioned Batman animated TV spots). Even after I 'outgrew' toys, I would take a quick trip to the toy department and see what I had been denying myself. Zellers was infamous for it's employees not really giving a crap; I remember one outing during my elementary school lunch hour where two fellow classmates decided to test the limits of a display model Stretch Armstrong toy. [Did you know that Stretch Armstrong is filled with a green lubricant-type goo? Well now you know.] As the nineties rolled through, and interest in action figures began to diminish, the toy department started shrinking and the electronics department began growing.

Still mesmerizes me to this day. Image source: www.actiontoys.com

The front entrance to Zellers also had a nice assortment of gumball vending machines — but not the ones that sold gumballs or peanuts (who wanted those?), I mean the *good* ones that, for 25 cents, provided you with slime, a super ball, a dinosaur that grew when you put it in water, or the greatest prize of all... the sticky hand. It was a good spot to waste some quarters for a diversion that would keep you entertained for the afternoon. I was obsessed with these things at one point in my young life, which was one more thing that drew me to Zellers like a magnet.
Sticky Hands! Image source: www.amazon.com

A lot of my fellow elementary school classmates learned how to shoplift at Zellers. A lot of them got caught shoplifting at Zellers, too. Zellers was the only place in Aylmer to shoplift where there weren't enough staff to keep eyes on every corner of the store, and the knickknacks were small enough so that you could potentially pocket something quickly and keep walking. (This would all change when dollar stores started to pop up in the early nineties, btw). I don't think anyone under the age of twelve who ever shoplifted at Zellers ever thought out the consequences of their actions. Our Zellers in Aylmer had a "Six Degrees of Separation" thing going on where there was a good chance that either your neighbor, a relative, or a good friend of your parents worked there (and it would be mortally devastating if you were caught). I think to many pre-teens, shoplifting from Zellers was just a proving ground to see if you had what it took to join a guild of thieves. The management was most likely aware of this and just gave the young offenders a good scaring and a call to their parents, never actually pressing charges. In a way, we can thank the staff at Zellers for scaring Aylmer youth straight and sending them on a righteous path.

Zellers' main competition seemed to be SEARS. Thankfully, there was no SEARS in Aylmer, so our local Zellers had nothing to worry about. SEARS' most effective marketing tactic was a gigantic Christmas Catalog they mailed out every October which contained a whopping 400+ pages of gift ideas for Christmas. SEARS was really trying to secure the 'we have the best selection of toys' title and shamelessly made sure the Christmas Catalog told you so. When I think back on it, mailing out something like that couldn't have been cheap. I have the feeling that Kenner's Return of the Jedi action figures (1983) were exclusively sold at SEARS — so that would be one advantage SEARS had over Zellers.

1987 Canadian SEARS Christmas Catalog. image source: wishbookweb.com

In the early 90s, thanks to progress and the expansion of Aylmer, another mall was built beside the 'Zellers mall'. This mall was known for it's large IGA grocery store and would thus become christened the 'IGA mall'. The IGA mall was popular with the Aylmer youth for a while, since it had a video rental store which had a very small arcade. This didn't last very long, however. Arcades were on the "out" since home video game consoles [i.e., Nintendo, Sega] were now "in". Within half a year, the 'Zellers mall' had regained its throne as the most happenin' place in Aylmer.

As far as a community rallying point, I seem to remember a stroll through the 'Zellers mall' being a pretty eventful occasion on a Friday evening. You literally couldn't get through the mall without running into another classmate from school with their parents. (This was while I was in elementary school, don't forget, so it was still cool to hang out with your parents on a Friday evening.) Off the top of my head I can't remember which community events our local Zellers sponsored, but since Aylmer was big on league events for youth [hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer], I'm sure Zellers had a huge hand in that, Once a year, always during the summer, a traveling carnival would pass through e-mail and set up for one week in the massive joint Canadian Tire/'Zellers mall' parking lot. In retrospect, it was a pretty slipshod setup (i.e., a Tilt-a-Whirl, a Gravitron, a Swing Ride, a really unsafe-looking roller coaster, etc), but this was a pretty big deal to anyone under the age of 10.

I don't have any legacy photos of the 'Zellers mall' circa late 80s/early 90s, so this photo from ici.radio-canada.ca will have to do. This was sometime in the last decade. Probably 2010.
Throughout the end of my elementary school days, the 'Zellers mall' had begun expanding. A new wing was added and more stores had begun to fill out the place. Despite all the cool stuff Zellers sold (ex: Nintendo games, action figures, board games, cassettes and CDs), they never sold comic books. They had a 'book section' that contained French hardcover collected editions of Tintin, Asterix & Obelix, Spirou, Lucky Luke, Safarir (and whatever else young Francophone children grew up reading), but no DC or Marvel. Thankfully, the 'Zellers mall' always had at least one d├ępanneur or avant-garde bookstore (and later a dollar store) where you could get your 'comics fix'.

As time went on, and I became a high school student with a bus pass who wasn't afraid to travel to Ottawa, our local Zellers became less significant to me. (The fact that I was no longer interested in action figures and board games may have also played a factor in that.) While I may have lost touch with it, the Zellers in Aylmer seemed like a 'lock' — something that was always going to be there — it was a part of the town. You could always count on that big red Zellers logo smiling down on you.

The Zellers franchise seemed to have seen it's best days during the eighties and nineties, and struggled financially into the new millennium. By now Wal-Mart had become Zellers' biggest competitor. Were Wal-Mart's prices lower or did Wal-Mart have more stock? I'd say they were comparable. It would seem that Wal-Mart's biggest advantage was it's marketing campaign and that it was 'new and exciting and from the United States', so it must've been better. [rolls eyes] Unironically, in 2011, the Zellers franchise was bought up by the Target Corporation in an acquisition deal that saw about 130 of the 273 Zellers stores converted to Target stores (the rest being sold to other retailers). The Aylmer, Quebec location was not deemed 'financially sustainable' enough to merit a Target. In 2013, our local Zellers closed it's doors for good. Target's acquisition of Zellers was deemed as a "spectacular failure" seeing losses of more than 2 billion dollars during it's 2 year lifespan. The last Target had withdrawn from Canadian soil by mid-2015. What was so bad about Target? Well, having visited it personally, I'd tell you that the prices were not THAT low, the customer service I dealt with were standoffish, and the merchandise wasn't as good as I had expected. GQ magazine, a US publication, had always painted Target as a place to go for affordable designer brands and 'Target exclusives', I saw no such thing — all I saw were things that Zellers normally sold, but for a higher price. Maybe these 'Target exclusives' were only exclusive to the US?

The last time I checked Les Galeries Aylmer, the empty husk of real estate that Zellers had left had been filled by a Montreal clothing and accessories retailer. The mall had become a ghost town; the comic book/gaming store and the tattoo shop had moved to a new location in Aylmer, the Canadian Tire had moved to a more prosperous part of town (next to a Wal-Mart, go figure), and about half of the retail spaces within the mall had been vacated. When Zellers left, it pretty much took away a major hub of activity within the center of Aylmer (which was now called 'Gatineau' as of 2002).

In 2009, St Paul's church was burned to the ground [some claim it was arson, but that's a story for another time].  Built in 1983, St Paul's was one of Aylmer's oldest landmarks and had a very distinct gothic look that brought character (and legacy) to our small town. I spent almost every Sunday for the first fifteen years of my life going to that church. All this to say that I don't miss St Paul's church nearly as much as I miss Zellers.

Photos of St. Paul's church, before and after the 2009 fire.

-Justin



For your interest:


[Editor's note: Sometimes people around the web comment on these articles, but they only comment on the platform that linked to the article (e.g., Facebook, Google+). I will re-post the really insightful remarks in the comments section under 'Anonymous']

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this! The grocery store in the Zellers mall was actually an Extra, an A&P and a Steinberg before it became a Super C as we know it today, in the early or mid-90s.

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  2. I too grew up in Aylmer for a bit and lived there 1959 to 1966. I went to that big stone school which was an English Protestant school at the time called Symmes Elementary. I'm thinking the mall your speaking of was between the housing development at that time called Glenwood and the school. Past the school you went into old Aylmer on the highway. In that mall at the time was an IGA, restaurant, smoke shop. They added more shops later. But instead of Zellers in those days we had a Beamish store which was Quebec's Zellers.

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    1. The Zellers mall was built in the 1970s. You are probably referring to Plaza Glenwood, which is the oldest mall in Aylmer (leaving aside the fire that burned part of it down in 2005) ;)

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  3. I live in the Detroit area, so I've watched my fair share of CBC, and I recall Zellers being advertised as a jewelry store (or perhaps those are the only commercials I can remember). If I'd caught that Batman commercial in '89, I think my jaw would've hit the floor!

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  4. Thanks for the article! I live about 30 miles south of the Canadian border in New York State and a trip to Zellers when visiting Kingston Ontario was always a huge treat. I really miss seeing that big red sign.

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