Hidden shoes, unlikely friendships and 'stressed out' customers: Inside the zany final days at Zellers

Customers are waiting in line for hours, striking up unlikely friendships and developing some creative shopping strategies as Canada's two remaining Zellers stores enter their final weeks.

Hudson's Bay Co. plans to close its 2 remaining Zellers stores by the end of the month

Zellers customers, from left to right, Mary Cutrara, Joioti Patel, Marzena Brzostek and Jessica Brzostek struck up a friendship while standing in line Tuesday. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Ignore the bright yellow banners advertising impossible-sounding discounts, and Toronto's last remaining Zellers can still look a lot like an ordinary department store on a quiet weekday.

Shoppers push carts through messy aisles of shoes and around circular clothing racks. In the back, others step around scuffed-up showroom models of tables, couches and chairs.

But then, you spot the checkout line — which looks like the kind of thing usually reserved for a hotly anticipated smartphone or sneaker launch.

It is massive. The line snakes out from the cash registers, up the length of the store and jogs to the left before coming to an end after covering more than half the store's total perimeter.

"Is it worth the wait?" shopper Michelle Buttigieg asked herself, with about two-thirds of the line still between her and the registers. "I don't know, it kind of is. I got six dresses for like 10 bucks yesterday."

Such are the deals to be had as the Hudson's Bay Co. (HBC) liquidates inventory at its two remaining Zellers stores in Toronto and Ottawa, which are expected to close by the end of January.

Prices at the once-ubiquitous stores have been slashed between 70 and 90 per cent, prompting shoppers to fill grocery carts full of mostly clothing and stand in line for hours waiting to pay.

A portion of the lineup at the Zellers in Toronto. Customers say they waited up to four hours to pay for their items. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"Yesterday I got here around 11:30 a.m. and we left at 4 p.m. We were in the line for four hours, standing here," said Marzena Brzostek, who came to the store with her daughter, Jessica, for both shopping help and moral support.

"It is worth it, because if you're buying something for $4, it's a good deal, and we have big families to give to, so we're going to make a lot of people happy."

Customers have been making repeated trips to the store in Toronto's west-end suburb of Etobicoke since the steep discounts began in December, but the frenzy seems to be intensifying as inventory dwindles.

A day after he picked up two Calvin Klein suits for $112 (retail price: $974), Brian Hayden was back at Zellers on Tuesday. He was hunting for more deals, but left after finding the suits had all been sold.

It didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the incredible deal he'd already scored.

"When I walked out of here —  I mean I work out a lot, so I know what endorphins are —  but I was flying," he said.

"It's great product at incredible prices, but the lineups will kill you because people are buying too much."

'To me, it’s Value Village gold star,' customer Brian Hayden says of the deep discounts. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Life in the line

In 2011, HBC reached a roughly $1.8-billion deal to sell the leases of 189 Zellers stores to Target and close the rest — save for three locations, of which only two remain.

The lines at those stores are crawling these days, because cashiers have to manually enter discounts and calculate bills, a laborious process considering the number of items many customers are buying.

But the situation has created an unusual shopping experience. Strangers forced to stand in line next to each other for hours are striking up friendships and banding together to score the best deals.

"You really meet a lot of friends and you share a lot of experiences," said Mary Cutrara, who was standing two spots behind Brzostek. "You get to see the same faces after a while, which is a little embarrassing."

Cutrara and her lineup neighbour, Joioti Patel, held Brzostek's place in line while she ventured back into the store on another search.

HBC kept three Zellers locations open after selling leases to most of the stores to Target in 2011. Now, only two remain. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

And on days when the line was too much to put up with, others have developed a system to strategically hide items around the store so they can come back and find them another day.

"I did hide two shoes, yeah," Patel said with a laugh. "You have to know the perfect place."

For other shoppers, the interminable lines were beginning to win out over the discounts.

"For me, I'm not coming back. This is it for me," said Sharon Brown from her spot about halfway down the checkout line.

"I'm so exhausted and stressed out, I do not want to see this place anymore."

'Not the Zellers I know'

Like most of her fellow shoppers, Buttigieg's shopping cart was filled with clothes. But she was also fighting off some sad memories while waiting in line.

She worked at the Etobicoke Zellers starting in 1996 as a cashier and stayed with the company for 17 years.

"I worked for Zellers, I closed Zellers. I worked for Target, I closed Target," she said. "And now I see this closing. It's so sad."

Longtime Zellers employee Michelle Buttigieg says she was saddened by the closing, but couldn't pass up the incredible deals. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

But the Zellers most Canadians remember hasn't existed for many years, she said, as most of the store's products are simply unsold inventory from the Bay.

She pointed to what was once the kids, toys and seasonal section, which is now filled with messy racks of women's clothing and swimwear.

"It's not really the Zellers I know. This is a Bay outlet, so it's different."


Nick Boisvert is a multimedia journalist at the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He previously covered municipal politics for CBC News in Toronto. You can reach him at