GUELPH, Ont. -- Shoppers who are on the hunt for a bargain will get their first chance to see the aisles of a Target store in Canada starting today as the U.S. retailer opens its doors north of the border at three locations.
The communities, all located west of Toronto, serve as testing grounds for a phased rollout of the brand across much of the country later this year. The stores, located in Guelph, Ont., as well as Fergus, Ont. in the Waterloo area, and Milton, Ont. east of Guelph, will open this morning at 8 a.m. ET in a somewhat low-key event designed to prevent any major fumbles.
In the industry it's called a "soft launch," but that lingo almost certainly won't keep shoppers away before the "grand opening" in early April. Another 21 stores will open this month throughout Ontario, though dates haven't been announced.
"We wanted flexibility to make sure we open when we are ready," said Target Canada president Tony Fisher as he toured reporters through the Guelph store on Monday.
"It's important that we can test and work out any of the bugs and kinks that we might find."
Even Target employees were surprised the Guelph location was opening so soon, the company said.
Delivering an element of surprise is apparently something Target can afford, since so much anticipation has built up around its Canadian launch.
As the media tours went on inside the store, several curious consumers drifted by the front entrance in their cars trying to catch a glimpse -- the windows are papered with the company's trademark bull's-eye logo.
"We have some what I would say are very strong estimates of what our stores are gonna do, but right now they are estimates," said Fisher, without offering further details.
What Fisher does know for certain is that Target has been gaining momentum in the domestic marketplace. Awareness of the company's brand jumped to 92 per cent earlier this year, compared to about 70 per cent in 2011 when Target announced it would open stores in Canada, he said.
A study from Brand Finance Canada, released Monday, found Target's brand strength in Canada is already considered nearly as valuable as domestic retailers like Loblaws, Canadian Tire and Shoppers Drug Mart.
Those factors have sent a chill through the Canadian retail community, and many publicly-traded companies have moved to cut costs across their operations in anticipation of the new challenges Target could bring, especially if fellow U.S. retailer Walmart starts to slash its prices to keep customers.
"One of the things that surprised me in this marketplace is there are some great retailers here, but you do have to go to multiple stores to be able to get what you're looking for," Fisher said. "It really reinforced the fact that we do have a great position here."
The Minneapolis-based retailer is expected to open between 125 and 135 locations in Canada in spaces that were once operated by Zellers. After the Ontario rollout, Target will begin moving into provinces in the West throughout the year and eventually into Quebec.
A Target spokeswoman said the first of five stores planned for Manitoba will open in May, although she wouldn't specify the exact date. They are located in the former Zellers outlets in the Kildonan Place and Southdale shopping centres in Winnipeg.
That will be followed in the fall with the opening of a store at the Grant Parking Shopping Centre in Winnipeg and one at the Shoppers Mall in Brandon, Joanne Elson said.
Elson couldn't say when the fifth store, slated for the Polo Park area of Winnipeg, will open. The company is considering two options there -- taking over the former Zellers space in the Polo Park shopping centre, or building a larger, stand-alone store on the former Canad Inns Stadium site, where a major new commercial/residential development is being planned by Cadillac Fairview (owner of the Polo Park shopping centre) and local real estate developer Shindico Realty Inc.
-- The Canadian Press, with files from Murray McNeill