Near mythical Canadian catalogue retailer Consumers Distributing is on the six-digit comeback trail. First reported in late July via the somewhat low-key St. Catherine’s Standard, brand new owners of the Consumers Distributing brand are hoping to re-boot the chain which unceremoniously declared bankruptcy in 1996 with a pilot store in Niagara Falls, followed by opening more than 80 locations across the country by year’s end. Ambitious or what?
Launched in Toronto in 1957, Consumers Distributing “wrote the book on savings:” by-passing expensive displays and showrooms Consumers outlets were essentially warehouses with no-frills storefronts, almost a prophetic physical manifestation of what would later become the concept of online shopping. This next level of futurist consumerism was so red-hot that by the 1970s, Hudson’s Bay Company had launched a knock-off chain called ShopRight.
Customers would browse the lushly photographed catalogue at home or in store, select their merchandise marked with a 6 digit code, use tiny blue pencils to fill out a form and then apply to the store clerk for the item. Sadly the perception that most items were perennially out of stock is often cited as a huge part of the chain’s downfall; imagine a frustrating Birthday visit in 1985, having to pick second and third tier G.I. JOE figures in the likely event the first choice was unavailable.
Unforgiveable, especially considering Consumers also owned Toy City, a chain of toy shops which overflowed with Hasbro, Coleco and Mattel product of the era.
Regardless of their poor stocking practices, the arrival of Consumers’ semi-annual home catalogue became an momentous event in itself, and many ’70s and ’80s children fondly recall poring over the truly epic toys and games section, or on the flipside, losing their innocence to that picture of a sinister, smiling woman holding something not-quite-right over her back (the infamous item # 407-122 – a “personal” vibrator retailing around $5). These once free catalogues now fetch a small fortune on eBay, and are endlessly reminisced over on websites and forums throughout the internet.
With the big box explosion in the last decade, and Target’s slow burn rollout in Canada, a Consumers Distributing redux has a certain cyclical irony about it, especially considering that the arrival of Wal-Mart pretty much killed them back in 1996. We can only hope their new catalogs capture our imaginations as they once did, that the stocking situation perhaps isn’t quite so dire, and that item # 407-122 returns to sooth a new generation…
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