Changes underway at The Bay

Some new life is being breathed into The Bay's downtown Winnipeg store.
The Bay's stock is being condensed to fill only three of the downtown building's six floors, while a Zellers store will move into the basement. ((CBC))
Some new life is being breathed into The Bay's downtown Winnipeg store.

The historic retailer is beginning a multimillion-dollar renovation at the end of July and moving a Zellers store — which belongs to the Hudson's Bay Trading Company — into the basement.

The company is vacating three of the landmark store's six floors and actively seeking new tenants, though not likely other retailers, said store manager Desiree Blackmore.

Anything that would drive traffic into the store for us," she said. "An office would be great but there is a lot of office space downtown [already]."

Blackmore refers to as a "right-sizing" of the store.

"We are just condensing. Right now, we only occupy about 50 per cent of the space," she said.

The building is simply too big for the retailer, which tried to spread its stock out but ended up making the store look barren.

Blackmore said the move reflects realities in retail and urban development that didn't exist when The Bay opened the store.

The Hudson's Bay Company was incorporated on May 2, 1670. ((CBC))
"There was no big box [store], there was no Portage Place [shopping centre], there was no St. Vital [mall] or Polo Park [shopping centre]," she said.

The Bay's basement has been nearly empty for some time, save for a tiny grocery store and a few racks of paperback books and stationery.

The changes will not result in a reduction of any staff at The Bay or the amount of products it sells, Blackmore added.

"In fact, our next step is to enhance our product and add new product assortment to bring back the Bay downtown," she said.

The renovations to The Bay will be complete by October while the new Zellers location should open in November, she said.

Future was in doubt

The future of the store, which has stood at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard since it opened on Nov. 18, 1926, has been speculated about for a few years, since it first switched from Canadian to American ownership.

The company was sold to American billionaire businessman Jerry Zucker in 2006 then in 2008, after Zucker's death, the company was sold to NRDC Equity Partners, an American interest group.

Following the first sale, there were rumoured plans to downsize the downtown Winnipeg location. The barren appearance made many shoppers think the store was on its last legs, despite the company's insistence to the contrary.

In August 2008, it was announced that Bonnie Brooks was hired as president and chief executive officer of the Hudson's Bay Company. A significant transformation of the chain began almost immediately.

Flagship stores across the country are in the process of receiving significant interior upgrades and expanded designer merchandise.

The investment in the downtown Winnipeg store "shows investor confidence in our city," said Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown BIZ.

"That shows The Bay is committed to our city; Committed to our downtown."

As well, the company is using Winnipeg as a testing market for a new Zellers format. Seven of its Winnipeg stores are being overhauled in the $20-million renovation, which will create wider aisles, a better pharmacy, a food market, a large candy department, and a renewed focus on other products.

Zellers, Canada's second-largest department store chain, was purchased by The Bay in 1978.

City has long ties to company

Winnipeg has a long connection with The Bay, which was incorporated in 1670 as the Hudson's Bay Company to support trade and development throughout the northern North American territory that is now Canada.

The first retail department store opened in the city in 1881 at the corner of Main Street and York Avenue.

In 1970, on the 300th birthday of the company — which shortened its named from The Hudson's Bay Company to The Bay in 1964 — head office functions were transferred from London, England, to Winnipeg.

As the company expanded into the east, head office functions were later moved to Toronto.

The Hudson's Bay Company Archives are located in the Manitoba Archives building on Vaughan Street, across from The Bay's parkade.

The records cover HBC history from the founding of the company in 1670, including business transactions, medical records, personal journals of officials, inventories, and company reports.

The Bay remains Canada's oldest continually operating company.