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Don’t get comfortable, Target; Many U.S. brands can’t hack it here: Bruce Philp

Canadians are polite but complicated.


(Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The headquarters of Target Canada, just off Highway 401 in Mississauga, Ont., has a nice, unobstructed view of the airport. I’m sure it must be handy for picking up visitors from head office. But I wonder if being in such close proximity to all that transience causes any existential discomfort for the people who toil therein. It certainly would for me, because I don’t think getting too comfortable here just yet would be a good idea for Target. I’m not sure things are going to work out for them in Canada the way they might be assuming. Canada isn’t Minnesota. Canadian shoppers may seem as easygoing as the folks back home, but we can be a bit…complicated.

The first time I ever heard of the Target brand, it was being ironically pronounced Tar-ZHAY by yuppies who drove to Buffalo to partake of its wonders. They would return with their trunks full of shopping bags, and tell stories of a magical place where things were affordable, and well made and cool. We would be agape with awe, look grimly at our Woolco tube socks and the terrible compromises Canadians make in the name of affordability and dream of the day we could join in all that uncompromised consumerism.

And then it happened: Target arrived. It unfolded just as it always does when a big American brand wades ashore to colonize our retail marketplaces. There was hype and excitement. People camped out. Cameras rolled. First purchases were recorded for posterity. Not since the arrival of Krispy Kreme had a launch like this promised to quench our perpetual national envy. But as Krispy Kreme can attest, an opening act is just that. After that first sugar rush, reality sets in.

You have to wonder at the blind optimism of anyone who runs a mid-market department store anywhere in the galaxy, never mind in Canada. It’s tenuous ground even in the U.S., where it’s generally accepted that the department store’s future looks either posh like Nordstrom or cheap like Walmart. In Canada, the prospects seem dimmer yet. Target intends to inhabit space abandoned by Zellers—whose surrender should have been a clue as to the wisdom of that strategy. History is littered with the companies who tried to make mass merchandising work here, going all the way back to Eatons’ near-instant failure with its Horizon brand in the 1970s.

Then there is the dirty family secret of Canada’s affection for oligopolies. Sure, we say we want more choice, but time and again our behaviour organizes markets into a few dominant brands, from airlines to telecom to banks to coffee shops. Maybe we like to keep our lives simple. Maybe we just want to be able to keep an eye on everybody so they don’t try any funny business. Either way, Target needs to remember that, while not especially orderly, the Canadian marketplace for its products is actually not under-served.

And don’t imagine that careful market research is going to protect Target from overestimating us. Canadians have a bad habit of answering surveys as if they’re being asked whether someone’s new pants make them look fat. In the abstract safety of a focus group, we were probably fulsome in our enthusiasm for Target. Of course we’ll shop there. Of course we think it’s going to be better than where we’ve been shopping until now. Nobody says they don’t want something better than what they have. But the Canadian consumer wears pretty deep grooves on the road to the mall, despite her best intentions. Just ask Krispy Kreme.

It’s not that I don’t want Target to succeed in Canada. It’s just that I don’t want them to think it’s going to be easy. Here, where the correct translation of A Mari usque ad Mare is “Who do you think you are?,” hubris is a hanging offence and nothing gets an American marketer summarily punished more surely than taking us for granted. That’s what they should ponder while they’re watching all those planes. That we’re not as simple as we look. That sometimes we’d rather wear tube socks than be suckers for a brand. That the only easy part of this adventure might be the trip home.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award