Shoppers give U.S. retailers the cold shoulder in Canada

For years, Canadians would cross the border to the U.S. to shop at Target. Exporting its cheap chic there seemed like a no-brainer.

But a year after opening more than 100 stores north of the border, Target has found business isn’t so easy.

Shelves are hard to keep stocked. Shoppers complain the prices are higher than at U.S. stores. Sales have been weak, and the retailer lost nearly a billion dollars in Canada for the year.

Cracking the Canadian retail market, about one-tenth the size of the United States’, looks simple. The two countries are neighbors. They are culturally similar. And Canada’s malls generate 20 percent more sales per square foot, because there are fewer of them.

But Target’s difficulties expose the challenges of doing business in Canada that have bedeviled other retailers. Some of the problems are old, like the web of costly regulations. But there are new ones, such as a slower Canadian economy and increasing competition that’s making the retail landscape look a lot like the U.S. economy.

The troubles are not what stores expected just a few years ago during the depths of the recession, when they saw Canada as a risk-free way of expanding internationally and re-energizing sales growth.

Now, Target is increasing marketing to convey it has unbeatable prices, while trying to make sure it has the right merchandise at the right time.

“I think there was an assumption that Target would come in and be everybody’s favorite store, but that hasn’t happened,” said Antony Karabus, president of Hilco Retail Consulting, who is based in Toronto.

Target’s tough time in Canada isn’t unique.

Big Lots Inc. is closing its 78 Canadian stores, which it bought just two years ago. Executives declined comment, but Karabus blamed increasing competition amid discounters. Best Buy announced last year it was closing 15 of its 260 stores in Canada and cut about 5 percent of its workforce in the country as it tries to revamp its strategy.

Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been entrenched in Canada for more than two decades, has seen its sales falter.

One big problem: U.S. retailers tend to underestimate the much different employee benefit laws and other rules, including language regulations. All product packaging must be in both English and French. In Quebec, stores are required to make French more prominent in marketing and signs.

Canada also has a tenth of the population of the U.S. but covers a larger area. That makes distribution more costly.

Aside from those complications, Canadian shoppers are under new financial pressures. The Canadian dollar has weakened, forcing retailers to charge higher prices. Because 90 percent of Canadians live within an hour’s drive of the U.S. border, they are used to crossing over to compare deals, according to Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of Retail Council of Canada.

Competition is also heating up, particularly in discount retailing. Homegrown Canadian standbys like Dollarama and Canadian Tire are formidable rivals.

Canadian Tire, which operates nearly 500 stores in the country and stocks housewares, barbecue grills and other items besides tires, has increased its marketing and deepened its assortment of home decor and other areas.

Canadian Tire, which has been in business nearly 100 years, has loyalty with shoppers who might remember buying their first bike there, said Jim Danahy, CEO of CustomerLAB, a retail consultancy in Ontario.

Each store also is owned and operated by a dealer, so it tailors its merchandise to the local market, whether farm town or big city. The stores also offer convenience. Ninety percent of Canada’s population lives within 15 minutes of a Canadian Tire store.

Given the challenges, upscale Nordstrom just postponed the Canadian debut of its discount Rack stores by two years until 2017 as it prepares to open its first full-line department store in Calgary this fall.

Some, like Wal-Mart Canada and Marshalls parent company TJX, are digging in.

Wal-Mart is adding 35 super centers in the current fiscal year, bringing the count to 395 by the end of January 2015.

Wal-Mart reported in February a 1.7 percent drop in revenue at Canadian stores open at least a year in the fourth quarter. Wal-Mart cited price competition and weak spending.

To lure shoppers, it’s pushing $1, $2 and $3 products. Karabus said price wars have hurt Wal-Mart, but business is still solid.