November 22, 2007
On the campus of The University of Western Ontario, neatly tucked away inside 1,040 cardboard boxes, an expression of Canadian culture like no other quietly sits waiting to be uncovered.
Ironically, it’s an Australian professor, Dale Miller, who has blown the lid off this incredible collection of materials known as The Canadian Tire Heritage Collection.
“It’s a treasure trove,” she says.
Miller is referring to a collection that includes hundreds of catalogues dating back to the early 1930s, internal newsletters, annual reports, 39,000 photographs, various versions of Canadian Tire money and hundreds of audio and visual files including some now-famous television ads.
A professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Miller’s research focus is retail history.
She has studied dozens of Aussie retailers and department stores but nothing like Canadian Tire exists in her country. So when a Western professor informed her the university had acquired this rare collection she knew she had to make the trip.
Miller saved funds and banked time to come to Western for a six-month study leave. Since early June she has worked hard to familiarize herself with this exceptional corporate collection.
Not only is the collection unique, the company itself has been ahead of its time on several fronts. And that is why Miller is here – she wants to understand what has made Canadian Tire so successful.
Her early research points to a few potential answers.
Leveraging one’s history as a marketing tool is a modern concept, but “Canadian Tire had a sense of their history and position from the beginning. They had a sense of purpose and they were certainly strong business people,” she says.
Canadian Tire knew the importance of good branding long before it became a marketing buzzword. It wisely chose Canadian colours and a maple leaf to represent the brand but understood that marketing was about more than a logo.
“I teach my students that a brand is not a logo. A logo will help, but it’s no good having a beautiful logo if you ring-up and they’re rude to you on the phone or they don’t have the product you want…the logo means nothing,” says Miller.
For Canadian Tire, the logo was a starting point.
In the 1930s and 40s, car ownership was starting to increase and cars were very basic. Canadian Tire began creating accessories that “made sense” — windshield wipers, their own antifreeze and, of course, tires.
The firm managed its merchandise mix well – it knew what to add and which products to drop. It combined national brands and created in-house brands, such as Mastercraft that still exist today.
Miller says Canadian Tire has been at the forefront of management best practices. Attuned to what customers want, it has pioneered interesting business practices of their own. Perhaps the best example is the famous Canadian Tire “money” – one of North America’s most successful rewards programs.
Starting in 1961, Canadian Tire issued its own money in-store to cash-paying customers, although the money was first distributed in 1958 at gas pumps.
The money was printed on the same paper as Canadian currency and featured Sandy McTire, a caricature Scotsman who was always “joyful” and reinforced the importance of “saving safely” and being “thrifty”.
Ten or 15 years after the Second World War, Miller says it was important to “get people involved” in what they were purchasing – and Canadian Tire did that in what she calls a “revolutionary idea”.
“The immediacy of the reward made it very appealing.”
Miller’s interest in Canadian Tire has led her to compare the retail giant to other well-known Canadian companies such as Eaton’s – a company that could not play up its heritage.
“Eaton’s had the devotion of the Canadian public and in a way to me they betrayed that. They didn’t have to fail at all. They still had loyal customers. That to me was very sad,” says Miller.
Miller contrasts Eaton’s shortcomings with Kingsmill’s, a local department store familiar to many Londoners. She recently wrote a research paper about one of the Forest City’s retail landmarks.
“They’ve stayed focused. They’ve managed to use their heritage and innovation to develop a very strong local brand. They’re very impressive,” she says.
Miller’s research has highlighted an interesting Western connection to Canadian Tire.
Western alumnus Dean Muncaster became president in 1966 when one of its founders, A.J. Billes, stepped down. Muncaster, whose father owned a Canadian Tire store in Sudbury, would remain president for 19 years.
According to Miller he was instrumental in modernizing Canadian Tire and “enabled its growth”.
While the Canadian Tire Heritage Collection has been the focus of her most recent work, Miller has been coming to Canada on and off for more than a decade.
She loves Canada and all its charms.
“Ten years ago I bought my first toboggan. I went to Canadian Tire and got one for $16.97. It was fabulous. I used it about twice and then I had to go back to Australia,” she says.
And of course there’s Tim Horton’s.
Miller has been known to cart back tins of coffee on trips home to her native Australia. And when her colleagues visit the home and native land, they’re encouraged to do the same.
Something of a matchmaker, Miller thinks Canadian Tire and Tim Horton’s should collaborate.
“Canadian Tire shops are really large and you want to spend quite a bit of time in it so the only thing that could improve it for me would be to have a Tim Horton’s inside,” she says.
Miller will soon return to Australia. She is grateful to Western and its staff and credits the Archives staff, in particular Bev Brereton, with broadening her research.
“I can’t praise them enough. They have been brilliant. Very professional,” she says. “Everyone has been so supportive. And it’s also the informal things that happen. If someone sees something in the Regional Collection, they say have you seen this? It’s the things you can’t do by email or when you’re at a long distance.”
Not surprisingly, a collection so large and rich with materials has left her longing for more time in the Archives.
“It’s a wonderful collection for Western to have and they should be proud of it.”