Will this reborn icon survive?

By Dave Kenney

Growing up, Eatons’ Surprise Sale was a monthly mainstay for me and my mom. There, her territory was the shoe department, while I scuttled around the toy department in my Velcro-fastened shoes. She got a deal while I whined about the latest Star Wars figure I had to have.

About a year and a half ago, I was the one getting a steal of a deal. Neglect by the Eaton family ruined the 130-year-old Canadian institution, turning Timothy Eaton’s proud department store chain into a chaotic bargain basement. Like many other crazed shoppers, I feasted on unheard-of deals, while others like my mother stayed away out of nostalgic respect.

Two weeks ago, the $80 million now-property-of-Sears Eatons re-opened across Canada complete with the awful ecstasy-like E-logo. With stores in Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and two stores in Toronto, Eatons is again open for business. For how long though remains to be seen.

That said, the new-upper scale Eatons is a curvacious, spacious and sleek store. It is also trendy. Included inside Eatons is a kitchen theatre for cooking demonstrations and coffee giant Starbucks. It’s definitely not my mom’s Eatons.

Whose Eatons is it then? Well, by the looks of things, anyone wishing to order a Montreal Canadiens sweater from Eatons like in Roch Carrier’s classic short story The Hockey Sweater will be out of luck. A DKNY or Ralph Lauren sweater maybe. You got mucho pesos? Eatons will wanna be your store.

And with good customer service, it might just be the up-scale department store. While a little over-dressed, the staff’s attitude seems genuinely customer focused. In a scene out of Walmart, store greeters are everywhere to welcome old and new customers back. Moreover, the return of the Eatons mail-order catalogue is welcome and endearing to above-40 Canadians.

And like The Hockey Sweater’s ending where Eatons gets its delivery right, Sear’s faux Eatons may have gotten it right. Judging by the reaction of shoppers on the opening Saturday, many left with a great impression of the store. One shopper said to some cynical friends, "Well, speak for yourself, I thought it was fantastic."

Still, part of me feels a little sad knowing average families like mine probably won’t be buying Christmas presents from Eatons. That is, unless the whole revamp backfires and a year and a half from now I’m back at Eatons during another store closing sale thinking, "Why’d they bother?"

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