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Loyalties: Eaton's Mystique.

My grandfather, Edgar Abel Gage, worked for Eaton's department store in Winnipeg. So did my father, Allen Abel Gage, as did my mother, a store detective, and my teenage sister, a part-time hardware clerk. Besides being a family, they shared the Eaton's jargon. They ate in the employee cafeteria, affectionately known as "the hash house," and met under "the clock," in the centre of the main floor. Nearly everyone in Winnipeg knew that rendezvous spot. There were other perks. My family got a 10 per cent discount on merchandise. And my father bought day-old angel food cakes from his buddies in the bakery for 25 cents. And he often got large advances on his pay, which were almost loans, to cover cash shortages.

Eaton's employees were called Eatonians and the company motto: `Once an Eatonian, always an Eatonian', was taken to heart with strong allegiance.

We were an Eaton's family. It was a question of loyalty. Not just small "l" loyalty, but much more than that. We bought everything in the eight-storey red brick building on Portage Avenue. We never shopped anywhere else. Shopping the competition was heresy for father. He was in for a rude shock. I got a job at the Bay part time after school.

He asked my mother why in hell I would want to work there. He never spoke to me about it for a long time. When he finally did he was quite curious about how things were done. He talked about the Bay like it was a foreign country.

That was the depth of his loyalty. He had never been in the Bay and we were indoctrinated at an early age that we'd always shop at Eaton's. If things couldn't be bought there, they weren't worth buying. When my sister was 10 she rode the bus with a friend to visit Dad at work, specially to buy a little bag of Spanish peanuts at the candy counter. She remembers. "That's the first shop, ping at Eaton's on my own I can remember."

For most of our lives, everything we needed in life was bought from old Timothy's downtown store where all buses seemed to stop.

Eaton's had it all in the old days; more than 50 per cent of the retail dollars spent in Winnipeg went through its cash registers. But its retail grandeur has slipped and the evidence is there. The Eaton's Santa Claus Parade is gone and so is the annual Eaton's employees' Christmas Party, at which all the children received gifts. Being an Eatonian was being part of a large, happy family of 3,000. Eaton's sponsored the Saturday morning Eaton's Good Deed Radio Club for child performers in the old Metropolitan Theatre. The Good Deed Club went out of business years ago. So did the Eaton's Junior Executives program for good-looking high school sales clerks in blue blazers and grey stacks provided by the store.

Eaton's employee picnics, once cancelled, have been revived, but couldn't match the vigor of the mammoth Eaton's picnics of old, with Pipe Bands, hot dogs, Dixie Cups, cold drinks in tubs of ice, three-legged races and a centre-stage men's tug of war.

The store that came to Winnipeg in 1905, though still dominant over the Bay in gross sales, has been in its own tug of war, retail-style, and its market share has been reduced. Because it's a private company, no one will say by how much. But Eaton's is almost vacant on shop. ping nights during the week and thin even on Saturdays.

Buying patterns have changed in Winnipeg with the proliferation of shopping malls. Covered malls, with free parking, specialty shops and open walking space, and close to the suburbs, have taken away business from Eaton's and the Bay.


Malls have put a lot of pressure on the department stores, says Russell Kehler, the general manager of Eaton's Winnipeg store. According to Kehler, the retail pie in Winnipeg is smaller because of a static population and everyone has had to adjust. He says Winnipeg has 1.5 to 1.7 square metres of retail space for every consumer compared with just short of one metre in Vancouver with double the population.

Kehler says the double-decking of Polo Park in 1986 hurt the Bay and Eaton's, the traditional downtown anchors because Winnipeg's population has remained static. Then, an additional 18,600 square metres swelled the already saturated market when the two-tiered North Portage shopping walkway was developed.

In the face of this competition Eaton's has had an obligation to respond to what Kehler calls "dramatic changes" in shopping habits.

Kehler is a gentleman. Well-groomed, well-spoken and mannerly. He is comfortable, confident and friendly when interviewed about the company where he has spent his entire working life.

"Our most important mission is to provide shoppers with a happy, satisfying experience, he says sincerely. "This is a critical obligation in all forms of retailing."

Kehler says customers are a very discerning lot these days. "They know what they want and they want to shop where someone cares for them. Our second objective is to provide quality merchandise at all price levels."

In order to provide that satisfying experience Eaton's sales staff undergo an initial two-day seminar to show them what customer service is all about. Then there is constant on-the-floor training.

If you use an account card or a major credit card, you are called by name, told your purchase was a good choice, then informed if there is an item on sale.

And Russ Kehler reviews about 15 suggestion cards daily from customer boxes around the store. He even calls the customers himself.


Eaton's maintains its long-held policy of `goods satisfactory or money refunded'. The policy was recently stretched to what appears a ridiculous limit. A man was allowed to return a full set of bone china dishes purchased at the store in 1980.

"He didn't think that the bone china had worn well," says Kehler. "Truthfully, there is no manufacturing warranty on the china."

Kehler refunded the man's money in 1990 dollars so he could buy a new set in the housewares department.

Such acts may be noble and breed customer loyalty, but department stores have suffered serious market damage from less than noble, but very market-focused, shopping atmospheres.

A 1989 review of American shopping centres by the international accounting firm of Arthur Andersen says since 1956, when the first covered mall, Southdale, opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shopping centres have ballooned from 2,000 to 35,000, capturing half of all retail sales in North America.

Malls have opened up their doors for other uses. From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. every morning St. Vital Shopping Centre in suburban Winnipeg has winter walking classes for seniors who can't battle the elements. Shelly Sparrow, St. Vital's manager, says the seniors follow marked out distances for exercise and then, after exercise, they have coffee with their friends. More than 500 attend the St. Vital program and there are several thousand seniors at malls across the province, she says.

Meanwhile, at Eaton's, seniors get a free coat check and chairs placed around the store to rest. In the basement groceteria, small portions of food are stocked, says Kehler, because a lot of older and single people who live in downtown apartments gravitate to the main store grocery section. Though the outside of the store has new windows and the red brick scrubbed at a cost of more than $2 million, the store hasn't changed much.

Stocking the 110 departments' at Eaton's are goods ranging from $10,000 fur coats, to $1,000 high-fashion dresses and 59-cent doo-dads in the notions department. Big ticket appliances - stoves, furniture, washers and dryers - are the backbone of the department store, according to Kehler. "In the appliances, it's the after-service that counts," he says. "People want good service and we've always been reliable in that area."

As Kehler walks through the store, the employees smile in greeting when he calls them by name. It's like a scene from a movie: The Boss Goes for a Stroll. His inspection tour lets the employees know he is there and interested. As he passes the basement pastry counter a heavy woman, dressed in bakery whites, calls a number to him. His face breaks into a bemused grin. She's calling out her take," he says, slightly amused at her overtness.

Formulas for worker loyalty are difficult to fathom but Eaton's seems to have succeeded. Loyalty starts with the people who work for you. Eaton's employees have that tradition, says Kehler.

"Although we have a staff of about 3,000 employees, nearly 50 per cent are part-time. I know that there is still employee loyalty to Eaton's, but it's difficult to assess how much."

The old loyalty is there. Joan Collins typifies it. Joan's life as an Eatonian started 44 years ago. joan met her husband Ron at work, as her mother met her father - at Eaton's. Her son works in the store and there are bets on his future bride coming the same way.

"My father would have had a fit if he ever saw a Bay bag in the house," she said. "I have few things that weren't bought at Eaton's."

Collins says working at Eaton's has always felt like working with a family. When one of the Eaton family visits the Winnipeg store there is usually a walkabout. "I think the people appreciate it. And I've met them all," says Collins of the owners.

Trudy Mattey, 32, is another confirmed Eatonian. She has worked for the Winnipeg Eaton's store for 14 years and met her husband at work. "There is a real social life among people in the store," she says. "I know at least a dozen married couples who met on the job. It's a good group of people."

Eaton's is wholly-owned by the Eaton family headed by four brothers who run it from Toronto: John Craig Eaton, chairman of the board of Eaton's of Canada; Frederick Eaton, chairman of the T. Eaton Co. Limited, which runs the stores; George Eaton, president and chief executive officer of T. Eaton Co. Limited; and Thor Eaton who isn't involved on a daily basis.

The family ownership aspect has distinct advantages says Kehler, who at 60 has spent more than 40 years with the company with postings in various cities during his career.

"There is a sense of family in this company because most of `the boys' work hard and are involved in the business and they visit the stores," he says.

Employee and customer loyalty has made the Eaton family among the richest families in the world. The company operates in a paternal fashion, like successful japanese firms do today. However, there are people who are critical of Eaton's paternalism.

Bernard Christophe, president and chief executive of the United Food and Allied Workers, Local 832, is naturally critical of the Eaton's operation. He says Eaton's has been successful in keeping wages at the $4.70-an-hour level. "Eaton's prides itself in being non-union and the company has been successful in treating employees in a paternal way," he says. "This has made employees feet that wages don't matter but working at Eaton's does. The pensions and wages aren't good."

So solid is Eaton's anti-union stance that when Christophe organized the Eaton's in Brandon, Eaton's threatened to close the store and the employees voted to decertify the union. He says he's been shut out of the Winnipeg downtown store.

In these days of large company politics and isolation of employees, Eaton's has kept a kindly eye on its people. Once an Eatonian, always an Eatonian, seems to hold true like a mystique.

As I left the downtown store, I walked by the shoe department, nearly empty this Friday night. It's inhabited by fast-talking, fast-service, older commission salesmen, who do a brisk business. A pair of Sperry Topsiders, a near indestructible deck shoe, was on sale for $67, down from $103. I bought them and was satisfied I'd done the right thing. Loyalty dies hard. My father would be proud.
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Title Annotation:Eaton's of Canada Ltd.
Author:Gage, Ritchie
Publication:Manitoba Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Previous Article:The axeman cometh.
Next Article:The Bay - American style.

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