His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d.
The Fur Trade
Two centuries before Confederation a pair of resourceful Frenchmen named Radisson and des Groseilliers discovered a wealth of fur in the interior of the continent - north and west of the Great Lakes - accessible via the great inland sea that is Hudson Bay. Despite their success French and American interests would not back them. It took the vision and connections of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II, to acquire the Royal Charter which, in May, 1670 granted the lands of the Hudson Bay watershed to "the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay."
Its first century of operation found HBC firmly ensconced in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays. Natives brought furs annually to these locations to barter for manufactured goods such as knives, kettles, beads, needles, and blankets. By the late 18th c. competition forced HBC to expand into the interior. A string of posts grew up along the great river networks of the west foreshadowing the modern cities that would succeed them: Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton.
In 1821 HBC merged with its most successful rival, the North West Company based in Montreal. The resulting commercial enterprise now spanned the continent - all the way to the Pacific Northwest (modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut). The merger also set the pattern of the Company's growth, being the first of a series of notable acquisitions.
HBC Klondike gold rush era advertisement
The Rise of Retail
By the end of the 19th c. changing fashion tastes contributed to the fur trade losing importance. Western settlement and the Gold Rush quickly introduced a new type of client to HBC - one that shopped with cash and not with skins. With the Deed of Surrender in 1870 between HBC and Canada, HBC yielded sovereignty over its traditional territories to the new country. The retail era had begun. The Company's focus began to shift as it concentrated on transforming trading posts into saleshops, stocked with a wider variety of goods than ever before.
In 1912, following advice from one of its directors who was with Harrods department store in London, HBC began an aggressive modernization program. The resulting "original six" Hudson's Bay Company department stores, in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, are the legacy of this period.
Retail expansion across the country would finally be achieved by a series of strategic acquisitions: Cairns (Saskatoon: 1921), Morgan's (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto: 1960) and Freiman's (Ottawa: 1972 ).
The growth of retail spurred HBC into a wide variety of commercial pursuits. Liquor, canned salmon, coffee, tea and tobacco were all lines that supplemented traditional fur and retail and helped to establish a thriving wholesale business. Large holdings of land negotiated as part of the Deed of Surrender took the Company into real estate. The sale of homesteads to newly-arrived settlers would later evolve into a full-scale interest in commercial property holdings and development. Shipping and natural resources, particularly oil and gas, were other important sidelines.
HBC store, Temagami, Ontario, Bear Island, 1941
Focus on Retail
In 1970, coincident with its 300th anniversary, HBC became a Canadian corporation. The pace of retail acquisition increased with takeovers of Zellers / Fields (1978), Simpsons (1978), and Robinson's (1979). However, the economic downturn of the 1980s left the Company with major debt and caused HBC to rethink its priorities and, like many other firms, return to its core business. Non-strategic business assets such as the Fur Trade, Wholesale and Northern Stores departments were sold in 1987 as was the Company's last natural resources holding, Roxy Petroleum. Strategic expansion to strengthen its share of the market continued with the acquisition of Towers/Bonimart (1990), Woodward's (1993), and Kmart Canada (1998).
Since then HBC has explored new shopping channels and ways of doing business. Club Z, the Company's first customer loyalty program, was launched in 1986. In 2001 it was superseded by HBC Rewards. Specialty arrived with the opening of Home Outfitters in 1999. Online shopping was introduced with the launch of hbc.com in 2000. And the off-price segment of the market was covered by Designer Depot / Style Depot, which operated from 2004 - 2008. In 2003 HBC Signature, a private brand inspired by the Company's unique heritage, was introduced. And in 2005 HBC was chosen Premier National Partner of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. The partnership, which runs from 2005 until 2020, makes HBC the Official Department Store Sponsor and General Merchandise Department Store Operator in Canada.
Today, HBC offers customers a range of retailing categories and shopping experiences primarily in the United States and Canada. Our leading banners – Hudson’s Bay, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH – offer a compelling assortment of apparel, accessories, shoes, beauty and home merchandise. Hudson’s Bay is Canada’s most prominent department store with 90 full-line locations, two outlet stores and thebay.com. Lord & Taylor operates 50 full-line locations primarily in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S., four Lord & Taylor outlet locations and lordandtaylor.com. Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the world’s pre-eminent luxury specialty retailers, comprises 39 U.S. stores, five international licensed stores and saks.com. OFF 5TH offers value-oriented merchandise through 83 U.S. stores and saksoff5th.com. Home Outfitters is Canada’s largest kitchen, bed and bath specialty superstore with 67 locations. Hudson’s Bay Company trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “HBC”.
The 21st century finds HBC well into its fourth century of retailing in Canada. Proof positive, if any were needed, of the aptness of HBC's proud claim:
Canada's Merchants Since 1670.