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Nathalie Atkinson: We’re sorry it didn’t work out, Target. Call us?

It has been a sobering January – and not just for maxed-out consumers. This year, the retail holiday hangover afflicts big-name store brands as well: Many of them are staring down the barrel of impending liquidations and fire sales.

After pitching woo to the press via celebrities and parties for over a year, for instance, Target's bold opening of 133 stores in this country ended just as decisively. No morning-after has arguably hit the sensitive Canadian consumer psyche harder than Tar-jay's abrupt decision to pack up camp after a scant two years in the market – a development that has dominated national retail news now that the hand-wringing over Tim Hortons' foreign ownership is old.

Of course, the failure is the fault of Target's inept management (for a start, trotting the likes of Giada De Laurentiis, Nate Berkus and Sonia Kashuk up for photo ops should hardly have been a priority when it was the supply chain and not media exposure that needed fixing). Canada's apologetic fallback, however, is and always has been, "It's not you, it's me." Since retail brands define identity even more so today than they did back in 1999, when it was Canada's own Eaton's that closed unceremoniously, Target's ignominious wind-down here unnerves profoundly, tapping into this peculiar consumer anxiety we have big time. These days, retail identity ("I shop, therefore I am") is a part of general entertainment culture, asserting itself even in throwaway moments, as it did on the new TV series Agent Carter recently. At one point, tweedy forties-era heroine Peggy Carter is setting her hair in pincurls at bedtime in a Barbizon-like hotel for well-bred single women. When an intrepid suitor mistakenly arrives at her window looking for his girl, this is all that's needed to explain who she is: "She works at Bonwit Teller."

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Not surprisingly, retail settings have been having quite a moment on the small screen of late. The department stores in the popular British period series The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge are the romanticized seeds of our modern preoccupation, their nostalgic portrayals a paean to a more personal, pre-Internet shopping experience: They are utopias of beautifully arrayed goods, handsome display vitrines and solicitous sales associates. In those days, visiting a store wasn't a mere buyer-seller exchange, but an exciting event designed to both accommodate and exult. On both shows, shopping is presented as an aspirational act, combining pleasure with gentility, spectacle with class.

Introducing the notion of democracy – embodied in Target's tagline: "Design for all" – is just another, more modern attempt at whetting aspiration, even if the Red Hot Deals that Target promised the week it announced its closure applied not to its vaunted high-low designs or even its house-brand Mossimo basics, but to Ritz crackers ($1.88 a box) and Royale Velour toilet paper (now $8.99 per value pack). In fact, the "red hot," post-announcement focus on dumping its health and beauty aids reveals Target Canada's true colours – that it is/was just as price-driven as the less glamorous, often mocked Walmart, but with hipper marketing and better PR. In the U.S., Target continues to move pharmacy items and the like under a democratic veil of high-ish design made accessible and legitimate through collaborations with respected creators such as Phillip Lim, Joseph Altuzarra and, way back, Michael Graves. It's a neat magic trick. But the magic didn't travel to Canada.

Hence the existential shopping crisis. In a country preoccupied with being world-class and how it's perceived abroad, the ongoing challenges of Sears Canada and the liquidation of the homegrown chain Jacob have been met with considerably more indifference than Target's or even Mexx's end. Le Château, which spent much of the past decade weathering the onslaught of foreign competitors such as Zara and H&M, is nonetheless also beleaguered, its cachet among Canadians diminished. Meanwhile, we pat ourselves on the back because we've successfully lured and sustained both the lavish outposts of international luxury brands (Tiffany, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada) and popular foreign mid-priced chains. (Canada's new Anthropologie flagship resides in a former church. Deconsecrated, it is now, literally, a temple of retail.)

Target, with its democratic pseudo-chic and adorable canine mascot, was mentioned in the same breath. But now it's going. And whither a country, many of us ask, that can't support a darling of the international style press?

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Nathalie More


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