Target learns a second language as it expands to Quebec

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2013 - 6:34 AM

Province’s language laws, cultural sensitivities present challenges for America’s No. 2 retailer.

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“Target’s openings are good for everyone,” said Karolina Mysior, owner of KILO fripe, a clothing store in downtown Montreal.

Photo: Photos by OLIVIER JEAN • Special to the Star Tribune ,

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In the Wal-Mart store just half an hour north of Montreal, meat is “viande,” the bakery is “boulangerie,” and the pharmacist is a “pharmacien.”

If you don’t already know this, don’t bother to look for a helpful sign, or ask the employees or customers. French is the law of the land here, literally.

“Is that English I hear?” Robert Hadad, an American shopper who lives in nearby St. Calixte, asked a visitor. “You don’t hear a lot of English here.”

This month, Target Corp. will officially open its stores in Canada, its first reach beyond the United States. But if the Minneapolis-based retailer wants to truly master the art of operating in a foreign country, the province of Quebec offers the best chance to do so. Unlike the rest of Canada, French trumps English in Quebec, a reflection of the province’s deep attachment to its Quebecois culture and history.

That poses a tricky dilemma for Target as it seeks to do business in this country within a country. Not only must it adhere to the strict language laws that require most everything to be French first, but the company must also navigate a populace suspicious of English-speaking foreigners.

“I don’t know how you reconcile the two,” said Bernie Marcotte, senior managing director of real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s office in Montreal. “If it was a choice between buying American and buying Quebecois, they would buy Quebecois. If it was a choice between buying American and buying Canadian, let the best product win.”

That’s why Target is taking its time in Quebec. The retailer will open stores there in the fall, months after other provinces. And thanks to its acquisition of Zellers leases, Target will debut mostly in large cities, which tend to more bilingual than the surrounding communities like Mascouche. The company is still carefully refining its merchandising and advertising strategies, knowing that one misstep could draw antipathy from a population not as familiar with Target as is the rest of the country.

“We did a lot of studying on Quebec because it is absolutely unique,” said Target Canada president Tony Fisher. “They are a very proud culture.”

‘A real sense of history’

That might be an understatement. The province’s identity crisis dates back to the 18th century when Great Britain defeated France in the Seven Years War and took control of Canada, including French-speaking Quebec.

Over the past 200 years or so, the province has wrestled with the idea of independence, both through violence and the ballot box. Today, French pride still holds sway over the province. Walk past the French street signs and the European style cafes and boutiques along St. Laurent Boulevard and the city could be mistaken for Paris or Brussels.

“The city is the Europe of North America,” Marcotte said. “There is a real sense of history here.”

Nevertheless, Quebec presents a significant opportunity to American retailers such as Target, analysts say.

“There is definitely a sentiment that goes deep in Quebec [that must constantly] acknowledge the uniqueness of French culture,” said Doug Stephens, a retail consultant based in Toronto. “At the same time, there is a limit to parochial allegiance. Quebecers also recognize a good store when they see it.”

Target officials think their stores also will translate well in Quebec even though local residents are less familiar with the retailer.

“I’m super excited,” said John Morioka, senior vice president of merchandising for Target Canada. “I think our brand does hit on what’s important to Quebec.”

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  • Highlights of Quebec language laws


    Must be in French only:
    • Public signs and advertising for commercial purposes outside of buildings, inside a shopping center, on public transport vehicles, of businesses of more than 50 employees
    • Road signs
    • Names of all professional corporations registered in Quebec

    Must be in French, but English is allowed:
    • Product labels and warranties
    • Software
    • Catalogs, brochures, directories
    • Union contracts
    • Company names such as Le Cafe du Starbucks, Poulet Frit Kentucky (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Bureau en Gros (Staples)
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