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U.S. retailers get cold shoulder in Canada

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

For years, Canadians would cross the border to the United States to shop at Target. So the decision to export its cheap chic there seemed like a no-brainer.

But a year since opening more than 100 stores north of the border, Target has found business isn't so easy.

Shelves are hard to keep stocked. Shoppers complain the prices are higher than at American stores. Sales have been weak, and the retailer lost nearly a billion dollars in Canada for the year.

Cracking the Canadian retail market, about one-tenth the size of the United States', looks simple.

But Target's difficulties expose the challenges of doing business in Canada that have bedeviled other retailers. Some of the problems are old, like the web of costly regulations. But there are new ones, such as a slower Canadian economy and increasing competition that's making the retail landscape look a lot like the U.S. economy.

The troubles are not what stores expected just a few years ago during the depths of the recession, when they saw Canada as a risk-free way of expanding internationally and re-energizing sales growth.

Now, Target is increasing marketing to convey it has unbeatable prices, while trying to make sure it has the right merchandise at the right time.

β€œI think there was an assumption that Target would come in and be everybody's favorite store, but that hasn't happened,” said Antony Karabus, president of Hilco Retail Consulting, who is based in Toronto.

Target has to fight hard to win over Canadians like Melanie Randall, a Toronto resident who crosses the border four times a year to Buffalo, N.Y., for shopping sprees at the store.

As for the Canadian Target stores, β€œIt's not the same,” said Randall, 42, who was recently browsing in Target in Toronto's East York Town Centre.

Target's tough time in Canada isn't unique.

Big Lots Inc. is closing its 78 Canadian stores, which it bought just two years ago. Best Buy announced last year it was closing 15 of its 260 stores in Canada.

Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been entrenched in Canada for more than two decades, says sales have faltered.

U.S. retailers tend to underestimate the much different employee benefit laws and other rules, including language regulations. All product packaging must be in English and French. In Quebec, stores are required to make French more prominent in marketing and signs.

Canadian shoppers are under financial pressures. The Canadian dollar has weakened, forcing retailers to charge higher prices. Because 90 percent of Canadians live within an hour's drive of the United States, they are used to crossing the border to compare deals, according to Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of Retail Council of Canada.

Competition is heating up, particularly in discount retailing. Homegrown Canadian standbys like Dollarama and Canadian Tire are formidable rivals.

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