When one door closes… How Target closing shop in Canada opens opportunity for Sears

 By Derek Logan, communications adviser 


“When one door closes, another opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Alexander Graham Bell

Businesses that endure are known not for their absence of crises, but how they are able to find opportunities in the midst of them. Or in the case of Sears Canada and its response to Target Canada closing down its stores, finding the opportunity in a competitor’s woes.

In Canada, the story of Target is well known – nearly 18,000 Target workers facing layoffs as the company plans to close all its stores within four months. It was more than the personal impacts on these employees – it was about a Canadian retail market shedding jobs – that has relevance to hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

Recently though, Sears Canada saw opportunities that come when a large group retail job seekers enter the retail market. It began offering laid-off Target employees store discounts and inviting them to attend job fairs. Dozens of Target Employees were even bused to a job fair. For Sears, it was a chance to grab the headlines and wear the white hat – a big change from less than a year ago when the headlines about Sears were about financial losses and laid-off employees.

A look back to the “Levi’s 488 project”

In 2004, denim clothes producer Levi-Strauss closed a long-operating manufacturing facility in Edmonton employing 488 people. Rather than just lay off workers, it approached the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) for ideas. JGR Communications President Jim Rudolph was with EEDC at the time as the idea was born to create the “Levi’s 488 project,” an initiative that would help workers find new jobs in their field.

Jim and his communications department colleagues were responsible for developing a strategic communications campaign to share the goals and actions of the project with the workers, the Edmonton business community and local media that were covering the plant closure.

The Levi’s 488 Project became a text book example in Alberta of how to handle a plant closure. The company offered severance packages for each employee, along with career counselling, retraining and even donations to organizations that provide services for individuals and families between jobs. EEDC recruited other businesses comparable with the workers’ experience to gather for a job fair and interview potential candidates. Some workers found comparable work immediately, while others had the luxury of time off thanks to the severance packages to plan the next phase of their lives.

Local media extensively covered the story, often reinforcing the rosy economic situation in Edmonton.

A different situation

The Levi’s 488 Project then had advantages Target Canada and Sears Canada do not have now – mainly job opportunities were plentiful for laid-off employees in 2004. The current retail market and the overall Canadian economy is uncertain, with depressed oil prices dragging down the value of the Canadian dollar. There were only 488 workers from Levi’s – Target is laying off nearly 18,000 (so severance packages are not part of the mix).

While comparing the two shows every crisis has different challenges, the possible opportunities that may arise are also quite diverse. It takes perceptive minds to look for those newly opened doors rather than dwell on the closed one.

Still, opportunities in a crisis also come with their own hidden dangers, and the coming days and weeks will be akin to a high-wire act for both Sears Canada and Target Canada. Certainly, industry and communications observers will be watching closely, deriving lessons – another opportunity of sorts – for inevitable challenges that lie ahead for the companies and the retail sector in general.