Shoppers brave cold to be among first inside Canada's new Target store

GUELPH, Ont. – The Canadian launch of discount retailer Target attracted a mix of bargain hunters, curious shoppers and even a few pranksters on Tuesday as the company opened three locations in southwestern Ontario.

Just before dawn a handful of locals had lined up at the Guelph, Ont., store, each with different plans for what they’d do once inside. Some people had mental shopping lists, others wanted to weigh it against Walmart, and one group of friends said they would turn the hyped event into a funny YouTube video.

For a department store famed for stocking everything under the sun, the crowd outside seemed just as diverse, and they braved the icy temperatures.

“Our one friend convinced us yesterday, but then she decided not to come. Too early and too cold, I guess,” said Tamara Valenti, a student at the University of Guelph as she huddled alongside the few of her friends in the cold.

They showed up at 5:30 a.m. and were first in line. Their goal was to find printer ink cartridges at a cheaper price than the competitors.

Behind them was Rhonda Weatherall, a local resident who remembers when Walmart launched its first store in Guelph several years ago.

“I was the first one in,” she said. “So I kind of wanted to come and compare.”

But after a walk through the aisles of the Target store she “wasn’t overly impressed.”

“There wasn’t a lot of great deals that I saw,” she said.

“There’s lots of employees in there to help … but it’s no different than any other. I mean, it looks like a Zellers but it’s got the name Target.”

Proving that it’s more than just another department store could be one of Target’s biggest challenges as it rolls out stores across most of the country in 2013, after more than two years of hype. The company acquired most of the real estate assets operated by Zellers for nearly $2 billion in late 2010.

The U.S. retailer opened the three stores on Tuesday as part of a test program for its phased rollout of the brand. The first locations are in Guelph as well as surrounding communities Fergus, Ont., and Milton, Ont., while others will follow across the province later this month.

Working in the retailer’s favour is a high level of curiosity. In Guelph, by the time the doors officially opened at 8 a.m., there were already a hundred people in line outside, and several hundred more followed in the hours afterwards.

The first ones inside the door were greeted by a line of enthusiastic Target employees who cheered, clapped and high-fived the shoppers, playing up the event.

“C’mon everybody, grab a cart!” one employee shouted, before noticing one customer who followed her encouragement.

“Woo! She grabbed a cart!”

The first shoppers out the door in Guelph were Scott Lester and Sam Skelhorn, two university students who had camped outside the store in a tent emblazoned with the Union Jack. Their plan was to turn the Target launch on its head by editing the event into an Internet video, part of a series where they do “ridiculous things like camping in front of a Target for three hours,” Skelhorn said.

After only a few minutes inside the store, both of them had picked their first items. Lester chose a copy of Disney’s “Tarzan” animated movie on DVD.

“I’ve been meaning to pick it up for awhile,” Lester said. “It’s a classic from my childhood.”

Skelhorn said when he walked into the store he immediately grabbed a copy of Michael Bolton’s “Time, Love and Tenderness” on CD.

“He’s always captivated me with his beautiful voice,” he joked. “I don’t have class today, so I’ll probably just listen to it on loop.”

Inside the store, the more serious customers were noticeably paying attention to prices, some of them discussing how they compared to Walmart.

“(It was) very nice, clean, friendly, and a lot of bargains,” said Andrena Wilson after buying vitamins and Fresca soda.

“I just wanted to have a look to see if it’s the same as over the border.”

Target plans to open another 21 stores throughout Ontario this month, although dates haven’t been announced.

Overall, the company is expected to open between 125 and 135 locations in Canada.

After the Ontario rollout, Target will begin moving into western provinces throughout the year and eventually into Quebec.

None of those opening dates have been announced.