The Demise of the Department Store in Canada Heralds a Shift in Downtown

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By Jino Distasio

Over the past year, cities have become remarkably different places. The response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has resulted in less active public and shared spaces like parks, malls, streets and retail.

In most cities, the downtown business area remains an important centre of entertainment, commerce and retail. These areas have been hard hit by the ongoing pandemic, and much has been written about what might come next. Some suggestions include converting empty office towers into apartments or rethinking high density housing and other activities that draw large crowds.

One thing that has become clear is that the retail landscape in downtown areas will look even more different in the coming years. This will include losing more department stores, which have struggled to remain relevant.

In Winnipeg, Hudson’s Bay — the last downtown department store — is soon closing, ending more than 100 years of a unique retail experience.

Changing Retail Landscapes

Retail in the North American downtown has been under threat for decades from changing urban development and consumer habits that have also been hard hit from the pandemic. The recent explosion of online shopping merely continued the previous impact of the 1950s suburban growth: massive malls and retail clusters serviced growing populations that lived further from the traditional core of the city. This shift, combined with the big box store revolution of the 1980s, ended the role of downtown as the primary retail destination for shoppers.

A photograph of the interior of a department store
Discounted merchandise at the Bay in Winnipeg, which is the city’s last remaining downtown department store. (Jino Distasio), Author provided

In response, there has been a sustained effort by planners to reinvent the downtown, but with limited success. This has included a variety of schemes from pedestrian malls, covered malls, elevated walkways and other retail models designed to entice people back downtown to shop.

The History of the Department Store

Department stores first appeared in the mid-1800s. They disrupted the retail industry by pulling people off the streets and into multilevel wonderlands. And for more than 150 years, the department store’s reign in the downtown was second to none.

Department stores were so much more than shopping: they were destinations where people met, gathered and socialized. They were also exclusive spaces, with lavish displays and architectural designs that offered an escape from the ordinary.

The Hudson’s Bay Company has a complex history related to profiting from and exploiting Indigenous communities in Manitoba and the rest of Canada. Native studies scholar Niigaan Sinclair suggested using the soon-to-be-empty building to address that history, and envisioned it as a place that could bring community together: “Let’s make Winnipeg’s most non-Indigenous space Indigenous space. Let’s make it a place where our community can renew, change and enter the next 350 years of our lives together.”

Winnipeg’s Changing Downtown

The city of Winnipeg is a good example of the downtown department store’s rise and fall. For more than 100 years, the downtown department store was front and centre in Winnipeg’s retail landscape. In 1905, when the Eaton Company opened its flagship store, Winnipeg was one of Canada’s fastest growing cities.

At its height, Eaton’s had eight floors of shopping and a massive complex of buildings that included a nearby annex for mail orders that totalled over almost 14 thousand square metres of space. A trip to Eaton’s wasn’t just about making purchases, it was a day-long excursion.

Twenty years later, when the Hudson’s Bay store opened up further along Portage Avenue in 1926, Winnipeg had become Canada’s third-largest city. It had a thriving economy that was propelled by a 40-year boom that saw people and businesses flock to the city.

Downtown Winnipeg, like most North American cities, was the epicentre of retail and commerce. It attracted the majority of shoppers and workers, who travelled by streetcar from all over the city. The positioning of these two department stores along Portage Avenue created an important retail corridor that was linked by street level retail.

Photograph of downtown Winnipeg with a vintage advertisement on the side of a building.
Downtown Winnipeg is a mix of historic and contemporary buildings that reflect the city’s changing retail landscape. (Shutterstock)

A Steady Decline

Starting in the 1930s, Winnipeg tumbled to a place of pronounced economic and social desperation by the 1960s. For the department stores, their massive statures began to represent a disappearing symbol of a bygone era. This came as suburban shopping malls began to spring up with dozens of American retail chain stores and a sea of free parking. Downtown simply became a less desirable destination.

Winnipeg was not unique in struggling to deal with decline in the downtown. Significant attempts to revive retail were made throughout the 1980s to halt urban decay. Malls were built and millions invested, but this did not work.

The failure of the downtown mall became a sore spot for many planners who felt downtown retail could be resuscitated.

By the late 1990s, the first titan of Canadian retail fell as the Eaton’s empire crumbled. For many cities, the result was the closure of many anchor stores in malls and downtown. And since then, the retail sector has continued to face challenges, especially in downtown areas.

Post-Pandemic Hopes

Cities will remain the engines of the global economy with the downtown being the place to escape. In the words of British singer Petula Clark:

I think it is fair to say that after a run of 150 years, the department store as we know it is not going to survive the final blow issued by the coronavirus pandemic. But cities will rebound, and the department store will transform something else.

If the past is an indication of the future, cities will recover. People will return to the downtown as it transforms from retail into homes, places of work, museums, art stores and gathering places.

For those of us who remember the spirit of these old places, we will reminisce over coffee, as we’ve been doing for decades perhaps just in a smaller space.

This article was re-published from “The Conversation”. Read other articles from “The Conversation”:



  1. Jino Distasio is correct about the changes wrought on downtowns across Canada and I mostly agree with his conclusions. I would extend his comment to cover cities in the United States as well. I agree that the death of the traditional department store as a center city anchor does not presage the death of downtowns, but instead their transformation. Also, it is obvious that certain cities are better positioned to weather these transformations than others. For example, in Canada, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary still maintain significant desirable retail locales in their cores, but the remainder of larger cities in the country have seen their economic centres of gravity move to suburbia. In the U.S.A. as well, there remain only about ten viable large urban downtowns that still attract shoppers and retailers (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, etc.). Most other metros have seen major retail move to the strip malls, big boxes, and the leading shopping mall in their respective regions. In Winnipeg alone, Polo Park has consolidated its status as the city’s fortress mall. There are no challengers to its dominance, the relatively recent opening of Seasons at Tuxedo notwithstanding. I think the ultimate difference between cities like Winnipeg which will face a greater difficulty re-establishing their downtown, and cities like Toronto which even in this year of Coronavirus still boast a strong (albeit diminished) city centre is the presence of a significant residential and institutional component plus good transit connections. The latter group of cities is not as reliant on a daily influx of suburbanites to patronize the retailers there. They have a firm native constituency and the middle class and upper class have not abandoned them for suburban enclaves. Such downtowns have maintained their prestige unlike other business districts that have succumbed to decline driven by perceptions of decay and danger. Especially now, with their residences, offices, museums, theatres, universities and temporarily-shunned public transit, these are the places which are in the best position to recover from the pandemic induced blows upon the development of a vaccine or other treatment. The traditional department store that pretty much sold everything and anything is dead; even in strong downtowns, the remaining large anchor retailers such as (for example) Simon’s, HBC, and Holt-Renfrew-Ogilvy in Montreal are more precisely multi-brand apparel and accessory stores, not coincidentally a very hard hit segment of the market these days. It will be interesting to see how the retail sector evolves with the changing city around it.

  2. Another big difference between Winnipeg and Toronto is that Toronto’s downtown has a huge tourist population that supports retail restaurants etc. COVID showed how important tourists are as retail etc suffered in cities like NYC, Montreal, London etc. the only cities today that have vibrant downtowns and still have department stores are ones that have tourist appeal. The decline of the downtown department store was worse in US than Canada. Detroit once had 23 department stores in their downtown.


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