The search for “lessons learned” is presumably still going on at Target after its flop in Canada ended in a decision to exit the market.
One lesson the company seems to have gotten out of this is the risk of thinking too big, for thinking it should even try to go from no presence to more than 120 new stores more or less all at once.
“We bit off way too much, too early,” John Mulligan, Target’s chief financial officer, told Canadian reporters last summer. “In retrospect, [we would] probably open five to 10 stores last year — refine operations, refine the supply chain, the technology, get our store teams trained. But again, that’s all hindsight.”
The only problem with that lesson is that Target went into Canada in almost exactly the same way Wal-Mart Stores did, nearly 20 years earlier.
Wal-Mart had an absurdly ambitious plan, too. And within two years it was making money, not making plans to close.
Daring to think big wasn’t the problem.
This contrast between the two forays into Canada came to mind again a few days ago, when shutting down the Canada operation led Target to lay off 550 people here in the Twin Cities. That happened to be the same day Wal-Mart announced its annual Canadian expansion plan.
Wal-Mart’s newest capital budget north of the border is less ambitious than in some previous years, only about $340 million Canadian. But at nearly 400 stores, it’s a dominant national retailer in Canada, with estimated sales of at least $23 billion Canadian.
“There are really two different stories here,” said Robin Sherk, a director of research who follows Wal-Mart and Canadian retailing for the retail consultants Kantar Retail. “One is why [Wal-Mart] was successful at the launch and the other is what their position is in the market right now.”
Wal-Mart’s jump into Canada came back in the early 1990s, well after Wal-Mart had emerged from its rural roots to become a retail juggernaut. One of the retailers then on its way out of business was Woolco, the discounter started by the once-dominant retailer F.W. Woolworth Co.
The American Woolco stores were finished by the early 1980s, but the chain was able to hang on longer in Canada. As Woolco up there was nearing its end, the New York Times reported that all the rumors in the financial markets in Canada seemed to point to just two likely buyers, both looking to acquire the chain and quickly reopen its stores as their own. One was Wal-Mart and the other was Dayton Hudson Corp. of Minneapolis, as Target was known back when “Target” meant a division.
It was Wal-Mart that made the deal, buying the Woolco stores for about $350 million. Unlike what Target did with the sites it acquired from another fading discounter, Zellers, nearly 20 years later, Wal-Mart from the date of its announcement in 1994 promised to hire everybody, from the Woolco president on down.
Wal-Mart then let the Canadians run the show. Wal-Mart made the chain part of its international division, acknowledging that Canada is not just some really big state north of Minnesota.
Wal-Mart also didn’t close the Woolco stores to renovate them into new Wal-Mart stores, keeping them open through the whole conversion.
That’s a messy task, a little like repainting a car as it rolls down the street, but Wal-Mart didn’t want to let the Woolco customers establish new shopping habits. A customer who came to a store every month to get prescriptions filled at the pharmacy might not come back if it closed even for a short time.
“The piece they really got right was that they put their focus on operations first,” Sherk said, referring to things like keeping the shelves stocked. “Retail is attention to detail. Wal-Mart can do that very well, and they did that in Canada.”
It’s not fair to suggest that Target cared nothing for detail, but it remains striking how different the outcomes were for an expansion that was almost exactly the same size. Target got into the market with a big splash in 2013 that came from opening 124 stores. Its first year in Canada, Wal-Mart bought and repositioned 122 stores.
Two years later, in the 1996 annual report, Wal-Mart’s CEO explained to shareholders that the operation in Canada was generating an operating profit and had achieved a 40 percent share of the market in only its second year of operation. It was already generating enough cash to fund its own expansion.
In 2006 Wal-Mart started making a big push in fresh grocery, following the game plan it used in its U.S. supercenters. “We waited a while before we brought in fresh, to make sure we got the general merchandise business right,” said Alex Roberton, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada.
In the recent past, the formula hasn’t always generated profitable growth. That’s what Sherk meant about “two stories.” Now Wal-Mart is in a battle with tough competitors like Loblaws, though its position has been improving.
After a six-quarter losing streak of declining same-store sales, it’s now been three quarters with comparable-store sales growth for Wal-Mart in Canada. Roberton said Wal-Mart’s best opportunities in 2015 lie in fresh grocery and e-commerce.
Now with Target quitting the market, of course, the retailing landscape in Canada will change once again. The store sites now controlled by Target are up for grabs, but Roberton declined to discuss whether his company wanted any of them. It’s hard to imagine Wal-Mart could possibly want them all.
If it did take some store sites, however, it would know how to make money with them. Unlike Target, it has a long track record of doing that in Canada.