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How did retail giants change and reshape Canadian society? Essay (Book Review)

Donica Belisle (a Gender and Women’s Studies Assistant Professor at Athabasca University) is an internationally acclaimed author of several articles that address Canadian consumerism in the 20th century. In one of her recent book titled Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada, the author seems to dwell much on Canadian consumerism.

The book serves as a collection of her earlier arguments, taking into account a wide range of companies such as Dupuis Frères, Woodward, Simpson’s, Morgan’s Sears, Spencer’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company, Eaton’s and many other small retail stores for her current analysis.

On the basis of her earlier articles, Belisle lends importance to the numerous exploitative and paternalistic relations prevalent within the sphere of early 20th century Canadian department stores. At the same time, she calls attention to those cases where relationships were compromised (Kloske 140).

In Retail Nation, Belisle traces the transformation of Canada into a contemporary consumer society back to a period where Hudson’s Bay, Simpson’s and Eaton’s retail stores were the major players in the retail shopping sphere. These retail stores transformed the shopping sphere in Canada between 1890 and 1940.

In her book, Belisle asserts that retail stores took advantage of business-friendly government policies, less-costly raw materials and escalating demand for low-cost commodities to strengthen the country’s economy. Some Canadian consumers gained contentment and happiness from those retail stores, while others had nasty experiences.

Belisle claims that, during the early 20th century, operators of biggest retail stores in Canada argued that their operations buttressed the nation by providing cheap products to consumers as well as employment opportunities for many.

Nonetheless, Belisle counters this assertion in her book by demonstrating how retail stores (in conjunction with consumer capitalism) contributed to socio-economic disparity in Canada. In fact, the main argument in Retail Nation is that retail stores played a significant role in creating a contemporary consumer culture that enhanced social inequality in Canada (Donica 195).

Retail Nation depicts retail stores as vehicles of modernization and nationalism. The book argues further that the white, consumerist middle-class nation (created by retail stores) was more contested and restricted than the nostalgic depictions of the previous retail stores.

This treatment resulted in racial, gender and class segregation in shopping and working settings for people of Asian, African and indigenous traditions including low-income earners and women. Belisle argues that the classist, racist and sexist ways promoted by retail stores drew numerous criticisms. Shoppers, activists, journalists, workers and jobless people all over the country censured mass retail.

For instance, close to 500 Eaton’s workers took part in the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 while a group of about 700 jobless people held a sit-in at the Bay in 1934 in Vancouver to demand accommodation and food. Retail Nation gives a vivid description of these events and many others.

What’s more, it reveals that, in spite of the dominance of mass retail in modern Canada, citizens boast of a rich history of protest and struggle against giant department stores as well as against racial, gender and class alienations attributed to capitalist consumer culture (Donica 195).

The significance of mass retail in Canada can be traced back to the nation’s early development when a group of traders and trappers formed Hudson’s Bay Company, the first joint-stock firm in Canada.

Retail Nation is a new book that focuses on women and gender issues in which Belisle makes an in-depth analysis of the roots and impacts of the large retail stores on their consumers and worker as well as the manner in which their functions overlap in unanticipated ways. The main argument advanced by the author (that the retail stores promoted modernization and nationalism) unravels in a systematic and cautious manner.

In contrast to other numerous studies done on this issue (i.e. Land of Desire by William Leach) that lend much weight on the theatricality and pretence of the early American retail stores such as Wanamaker’s, Belisle’s book lends credence on labor relations and lives of workers and draws parallels with Susan Porter’s Counter Cultures.

Belisle’s book Retail Nation offers an in-depth analysis of the role played by major department stores in Canada’s modernization process between 1890 and 1940. The book makes a comparative analysis of the policies and practices adopted by the leading retail stores such as Simpson’s, Eaton’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company with regard to labor relationships, competition, promotion and marketing.

What’s more, Retail Nation explores the influence of these department stores on attitudes of Canadian citizens with respect to consumerism as well as nationalism.

Although Belisle attempts to deconstruct the falsehood of these gigantic Canadian department stores as builders of nation, her book provides numerous reproductions, illustrations, photographs and narratives to gratify ardent readers who aspire to learn or remember the peaceful periods of truly Canadian retail (Kloske 142).

Belisle aspires to use this book to push beyond the consumer-as-active versus consumer-as-duped concept that has dictated the setting of Canadian consumer historiography.

As an alternative, she aims to present a description of early 20th century Canadian consumerism as an intricate web of consumer, state and business interests, asserting that this strategy “avoids simplistic depictions of consumers as either passive or liberated” (Donica 6).

It is worth mentioning that both Cynthia Wright and Joy Parr have already employed this type of strategy in their work given that they emphasize a multi-faceted tactic with respect to studying Canadian consumerism in 20th century.

Belisle’s book stresses particularly to main retail stores in Canada-the Hudson’s Bay and Eaton’s stores which are discussed in detail as the focal points of Canadian modernity between late 19th century and early 20th century (Kloske 141).

Belisle’s book bears similarities with Susan Porter, an American historian who dwells upon American department stores in the same period and their key position as centers where subjects such as gender and modernity were discussed.

Belisle asserts that the Canadian departmental stores qualify as outstanding examples in light of their activities in all three facets of marketplace (production, distribution and consumption). Retail Nation is based on the work done by Parr and Wright who lend credence on post-World War II consumerism in addition to gender and race matters within Canadian consumption.

However, Retail Nation is somewhat different since it emphasizes on the significance of mass retail during an earlier period and its sway in terms of the development of Canadian society in ensuing years particularly with respect to concepts of nationhood and gender.

As such, in spite of the fact that Belisle’s book is a bit repetitive with regard to international perspective (relying heavily on American consumer historiography), it nonetheless provides a legitimate contribution to the Canadian discourse on historical consumerism since it discusses a number of topics that are yet to be tackled within the Canadian perspective (Kloske 141).

Retail Nation is split into seven chapters and the book covers much, with paternalism appearing as the dominant theme in the entire book. The author (Belisle) starts her book by asserting the integral role played by department stores within the Canadian consumer development context.

Belisle points out the difference with the American as well as British examples in which retail stores play a less subdued role. In an attempt to describe the distinctive nature of Canadian experience, the author attempts to trace the post-1896 demographic and geographic development of Canadian settlement that defined the Sifton period (Donica 7).

In her book titled Retail nation , Belisle makes comparison between the concurrent growth and development of Canadian retail stores and transformations in consumer demand that took place during this period.

One of the outstanding aspects of the book is the relationships that Belisle discloses between the burgeoning national identity on the one hand and the retail stores, their consumers, and their products on the other hand. As such, she asserts that retail stores were mainly responsible for developing a perfect Canadian identity as well as defining “modern Canadian life as consumerist, middle class, and white (Donica 7).

The first chapter of Retail Nation makes an extensive comparison between Canadian retail stores and other stores elsewhere. This chapter places the emergence of Canadian mass retail within the global environment.

By giving emphasis to the sales totals, branch store openings, employment statistics, business operations and merchandising strategies used by these retail stores, this chapter provides the most vivid account about the history of Canada’s mass retail during the 1850-1940 period.

This chapter looks at various data that pertain to not only Eaton’s (the famous retail store in Canada) but also explore other retail stores such as the Dupuis Frères, Morgan’s, Woodward’s, the HBC, and Simpson’s. Chapter one discloses that while retail stores emerged all over Canada in the late 19th century, Simpson’s and Eaton’s were the frontrunners in the country’s retail market.

Their branch stores, catalog operations, merchandise selection, services and low prices enabled them to attain and maintain a competitive advantage over other stores up to the 1950s.

Although there was a shift in consumer tastes and preferences as well as rising competition which brought to an end the decades-long monopolistic reign of major retails stores in Canada, both Simpson’s and Eaton’s managed to remain competitive in the retail market (Donica 5).

The themes of emotional labor, as well as paternalism, are heavily discussed between chapters three and six. These chapters are considerably based on Belisle’s earlier work as well as works by Arlie Hochschild (an American Historian) on the gradual commercialization of private opinions and on flight attendants during the post-war period.

Belisle dwells upon the prevalence of gender hierarchies during this period by drawing focus to the intrinsic paternalism in relations between female customers and female salespersons and male managers. Much of these discussions are based on previous works by Benson (Kloske 142).

Contemporary postulations about female intellectual inadequacy and the notion that the role of women in the society was confined to domestic sphere transformed into a structure in which women scarcely attained managerial positions.

What’s more, these pro-male settings were additionally strengthened by class and racial hierarchies that were emphasized in a similar way. Belisle points an accusing finger to early retail stores for employing marketing strategies that promoted racism and class:

First Nations people as pre-modern, Africans and Asians as laborers and whites as consumers…thus department stores suggested how mass merchandising helped to establish modern European civilization. This political economy drew upon imperialist legacies in its construction of race hierarchies (Donica 69).

Belisle seems to be at her best in these discussions, relying on her widespread research on paternalism issue as well as disclosing the extreme repressive characteristics of early 20th century Canadian department stores (Kloske 143).

The last chapter of Belisle’s book Retail Nation dwells upon the emergence of mass retail and the reaction of those who criticized retail stores. For majority of Canadian citizens, the self-indulgent consumerism synonymous with gigantic shrines of shopping was perceived as a threat to the wholesomeness and purity of white females.

Other labor leaders and social reformers perceived mass retail stores as a danger to the growth and continuity of small (local) businesses. Belisle asserts that whereas these criticisms were extensive and prominent, they were nonetheless unable to considerably curb the growth and development of large retail stores.

This was mainly as a result of the failure by the critics to deal with and find a competitive answer to the selection and suitability provided by giant retail stores such as HBC or Eaton’s. What’s more, their (critics) failure stems partially from their inability to get government support in their fight against large department stores (Kloske 143).

This book discloses that the largest departmental stores in Canada turned into symbols of Canadian democratic modernity between 1890 and 1940. These retail stores presented themselves as not only sources of comfort, extravagance and success but also as public centers that could be accessed by all Canadians (Donica 194).

Thus, the decision by the unemployed masses in Canada to hold demonstrations at both Spencer’s and HBC was a significant phenomenon. The choice of demonstrators to hold sit-in strikes at these stores attracted attention to the paradox of their poverty.

In a city and nation that had the ability to create such shrines of consumerist democracy (i.e., retail stores) that offered a wide range of merchandizes, it no doubts appeared to the demonstrators illogical that a substantial portion of the masses should be deprived basic needs such as food and shelter (Donica 195).

Retail Nation examines these demonstrations and exposes the concerns raised by critics of Canadian retail stores. What’s more, the book draws comparison between criticisms leveled against these stores in Canada and similar reactions in other countries.

For instance, similar to critics of retails stores in France and Britain, the author reveals that many Canadians perceived retail stores as significant threats to their comfortable ways of life. Just like critics in France and Britain, Canadian critics employed images of materialistic and oppressed female shoppers to air their concerns.

The critics’ use of these images lends weight to the feminist observation that deep-rooted issues such as sexuality and gender bias permeated corporate monopolization, urbanization and the emergence of consumer culture in the late 19th and early 20th century (Donica 195).

Works Cited

Donica, Belisle. Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.

Donica, Belisle. “Toward a Canadian Consumer History.” Labour 52 (2003): 181-206. Print.

Kloske, Madeleine. Book Review: Donica Belisle, Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada, Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 2011. Print.

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