Walmart in Quebec: 30 years of bipolarity

If you knew the Woolco stores, with their tempting and frenetic $1.44 days, I regret to tell you that they were replaced by Walmart 30 years ago now. It was in March 1994. Two observations: time flies and Quebec has given the American juggernaut a hard time.

“Walmart is invading Canada », announced The duty the day after the sale of 122 Woolcos, including 20 in Quebec, to Sam Walton’s company. With a title like that, the time seemed serious.

Moreover, the news of the arrival of the big bad American wolf in the Canadian fold had made traders as much as investors tremble. In three days, the shares of La Baie had fallen by 18%, those of Canadian Tire by 13% and those of Sears Canada by 6%, reported The Press in an article entitled “The Terror of Traders”. It was said that in the United States, the arrival of Walmart in certain cities is “literally killing the city center”. Nothing reassuring.

But at least in the deal Walmart retained Woolco’s 16,000 employees. This ensured a smooth and very quick transition. Barely two months after the mid-January announcement, Walmart was already welcoming its first customers.


Front of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s first store in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2013

This short deadline did not allow the premises to be transformed to bring them up to date. In any case, Sam Walton’s empire does not spend a penny unnecessarily, as we immediately see when we visit its rudimentary headquarters in Arkansas.

For customers, the change of brand was therefore not very disorienting, which was perhaps intended and beneficial. Years later, you could almost smell Woolco in some branches because they were so outdated.

It is still curious that the destinies of these two chains of low-cost department stores should have crossed paths, because both were born in the same year, in 1962, and in the same country.

When it arrived in Canada, Walmart already had a turnover of 67 billion. This shows how dazzling its growth was. Its sales now exceed 648 billion, almost 10 times more. And almost as many as Apple and Alphabet (Google) combined.

Now, 1.5 million Canadians visit Walmart every day and the same number visit its website. It’s huge, like almost all the figures concerning this extraordinary retailer. Its workforce now numbers 100,000 people and there are 403 stores.

The most famous of them is undoubtedly that of Jonquière, the first in North America to unionize within the Walmart empire. Its closure in 2005 for official reasons of “unprofitability”, shortly after the arrival of the UFCW in the picture, sparked indignation throughout the province.


The Jonquière Walmart, in 2005

And all the way to the National Assembly where Bernard Landry, then leader of the opposition, announced that he would boycott the chain of stores by denouncing its maneuvers. Very rarely have we heard a politician attack a private company in this way.

Since its birth, the retailer had never seen fit to take care of its reputation. Its founder did not see the point in it. Obviously he was wrong. Quebecers’ love rating for Walmart – which dropped from 71% in 2004 to only 11% after this shocking closure – was hurting sales. And even to expansion, mayors being less inclined to welcome a branch of the empire on their territory.

A first French-speaking spokesperson has been hired. Products from Quebec companies began to be featured in store entrances, in an attempt to erase the image of the evil American insensitive to the particular realities of the Quebec market.


In November 2023, Walmart announced its membership in the “Products of Quebec” program.

This initiative even had its own space in the Walmart museum in Arkansas. I saw it with my own eyes, in 2008, on the sidelines of the spectacular annual shareholders’ meeting hosted by Queen Latifah and bringing together 15,000 employees from a host of countries.

The Walmart representative who accompanied me took me to see the small window containing some Quebec products and a poster in French with the name of the program, Achat-Québec. I always suspected it was arranged with the views guy. Rereading my texts from the time, I remembered that I had been the only Canadian journalist invited to the event. Probably not a coincidence.

The Jonquière case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the employees won their case. I would be curious to know the invoice of the lawyers on file.

During these procedures, Saint-Hyacinthe employees also joined a union. Another thorn in the side. For reasons you can imagine, writing the first convention took a long time: four years. To think that the accreditation was revoked 22 months later…

In 2020, another Walmart initiative was poorly received in Quebec, notably by the leader of the official opposition in Quebec, Dominique Anglade. On Twitter, which has since become

The Union of Agricultural Producers (UPA) asked the Competition Bureau to investigate. And the Minister of Agriculture André Lamontagne decided to provide the country with a code of conduct to prevent this type of thing from happening again. François Legault publicly congratulated him for “fighting the “surprise” fees imposed by retailers like Walmart on suppliers.” Mr. Lamontagne is still working on this complex project. Adoption of the code is slow because Loblaw and Walmart oppose it.

Read our text “Investment of 3.5 billion: a steep bill for Walmart suppliers”

Read our text “Quebec wants to make things happen”

That said, no one doubts Walmart’s success in the province and no one seems surprised. As if it were self-evident. Yet other retailers have failed, not least.

The most famous case is obviously Target, which bought the leases from Zellers to be present across Canada overnight. The failure was resounding. Lowe’s must also have thought that it would be easy to attract Canadians with its hardware store concept. But no. As soon as it is hung, as soon as it is taken down, the sign is already forgotten, replaced by Rona+.

Walmart has been able to seduce Quebecers with its prices, but also its offering adapted to its markets, especially on the food side. Looking at the full parking lots, there is no doubt that the lady is happy… like hundreds of thousands of other consumers.


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