Target Canada tried to win Quebecers over, but in the end it failed as badly as it did everywhere across the country, even if the reasons were somewhat different.
“They really went out of their way to get Quebec right. They did things that other larger American retailers entering the market would not have done,” said Eric Blais, president of Headspace, a firm that decodes Quebec for companies hoping to do business in the francophone province.
Target sought out Quebec celebrities and designers to feature in their stores. They made pop star Mitsou Gélinas a fashion ambassador. They partnered with blogger and designer Saskia Thuot, a woman Blais compared to Martha Stewart. They created a Facebook account with content skillfully translated into French.
“They did so many things right and yet they stumbled,” said Blais.
Their biggest mistake, according to Blais, was basing the success of their business model on changing Canadian shopping habits.
“Target executives themselves realized that Canadians were less likely to (one-stop) shop than Americans – and intended to change that in order to succeed,” said Blais, citing a press interview with former Target Canada president, Tony Fisher.
“So, your success is predicated on changing the way Canadian’s shop? Good luck with that,” said Blais.
While Canadians do have an appetite for one-stop shopping – Walmart has had success with supercentres featuring groceries – Canadians are more used to buying goods from specialty stores, and it’s a habit that is especially ingrained in Quebec, said Blais.
Quebecers are used to getting their cheese from the fromagerie, their meat at the charcuterie and their pastries from the pâtisserie.
Quebec supermarkets know this and carry a wide range of specialty cheeses, breads, meats, fruit and vegetables from local producers. The relatively limited food offering at Target was not appealing to Quebecers.
“To most people, Target didn’t ring a bell,” said Frédéric Laurin, an economics professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.
“Maybe in the rest of Canada people were more aware of Target’s reputation – in Quebec it’s a different culture and language. Nobody knew anything about it. They needed to develop a marketing strategy as if it was a totally new enterprise.”
Other big brands have done it successfully, Laurin pointed out. Pepsi built brand awareness in Quebec, by hiring Claude Meunier, one of the actors from the hit television show La Petite Vie, to star in a humorous ad.
Walmart accidentally coined a popular catchphrase when it featured a Walmart employee speaking French with a distinct Québécois accent in a television commercial that concluded with: “La madame est contente,” (the lady is happy.)
“Target needed to do something specific from Quebec culture with their advertising,” said Laurin. “They tried to sponsor some local events, they tried things on social networks, but nothing that was targeted at the older population. They did not explain why we should go to Target. I know I never went – most people I knew never went.”
When residents of Trois-Rivières want something cheap, they go to Walmart or Costco or Giant Tiger, said Laurin. They can get specialized food products at Metro or Provigo (the Loblaw brand in Quebec) grocery stores.
“They didn’t have a niche,” said Laurin, of Target.
Quebec has different immigration patterns than the rest of Canada, said Karl Moore, associate professor at Desautels faculty of management at McGill University.
It has proportionately more immigrants from French-speaking countries, including France and North Africa.
“The product assortment has to be different in Quebec than other parts of the country. Target didn’t seem to get that,” said Moore.
Fabien Durif, a professor at UQÀM’s school of management, said Target misread the Quebec market.
“I think they thought Quebec had the same consumption patterns as the rest of Canada. It didn’t think about the diversity of Canadians and the provinces. They didn’t understand the local markets in Canada and the necessity of having local offerings,” he said.
And research has shown Quebecers are particularly hard-nosed when it comes to price-quality proposition, he said.
“Quebecers wanted low prices, better than Walmart and that wasn’t the case.”
He said it is also difficult to get Quebecers to try a new retailer and Quebecers also have less trust in big companies.
“It’s cultural. They trust local businesses. They worry about being manipulated by big businesses. They worry about lack of transparency.
“It’s complicated for a retailer to succeed in this market.
Benoit Duguay, also a professor at UQÀM’s school of management, believes Target thought Canada was an easy market to conquer. In fact, the market, especially the discount retailing market was already well-served.
“You have a very competitive market and you’re trying to get in there. The only way to manage that is if you differentiate yourself from the competition, which they were never able to do.”
For a few days now, the Wikipedia entry on Target in French has been running with an altered slogan: Trouvez moins, payez plus.
“Find less, pay more.”