The Tale of Two Big Boxes

Eaton’s versus IKEA

The “Big Store” on Portage in its glory days

Eaton’s landmark red brick store on Portage Avenue opened on July 17, 1905, the first Eaton’s in Western Canada. IKEA opened November 28, 2012, the first IKEA store between Toronto and Calgary. Both events were milestones for Winnipeg’s retail trade. Care for some comparisons?


The Eaton’s store totalled 608,888 square feet plus 84,786 square feet of basement. A downtown site meant building upwards. Initially it was a five-storey store. Then a sixth floor was added, and by 1910 a seventh and eighth floor.

Eaton’s would also construct a number of ancillary buildings nearby including the huge catalogue building (now CityPlace), the former powerhouse now occupied by Tavern United sports bar and a stable housing 160 horses for deliveries.

IKEA weighs in at only 395,671 square feet.

Opening Day Hype:

On opening day in 1905 a reported 20,000 to 25,000 people poured through Eaton’s. There were no sales made-it was strictly a day for touring the store after the opening by Timothy Eaton! At the time the population of Winnipeg was only about 78,000.

Coincidentally, some 20,000 shoppers were predicted for IKEA’s opening day, with their credit cards.


On opening day IKEA shoppers arrived by car. Eaton’s was built to serve a population where automobile ownership was rare. Customers would arrive by public transit and that made a central location vital.

IKEA and the new generation of big boxes are creatures of the suburbs. Raw land or sometimes large former industrial sites allow flexibility. Consumers are car drivers and willing to travel greater distances so they don’t care about central locations. Of course, IKEA is not ignoring demographics by locating on Winnipeg’s Southwest where incomes and home prices are highest.

IKEA rises at Kenaston & Sterling Lyon: it’s a driver’s world


The new Eaton’s store anchored commercial development downtown. It actually located in a new area for major commercial development. Over time the retail axis of Winnipeg followed its lead, shifting from Main Street to Portage Avenue. After the Bay store was built in 1926 the two stores bookended Winnipeg’s “retail” street.

IKEA is another anchor-the key for the new development of Seasons of Tuxedo to move forward. Seasons of Tuxedo is intended to total 1.5 million square feet of commercial space. The next major tenant on the horizon is a 77,000-square-foot Cabela’s outdoor store.

Altitude (Density)

Eaton’s: 8 storeys. IKEA: 2 storeys.

Eaton’s was built in a central location where building footprints were limited by street plans-so they had to build upwards, ultimately eight storeys on full basement. IKEA only has a partial second storey- it covers less than half of the building footprint and there is no basement. The IKEA property is over 27 acres.


To supply its customers Eaton’s would early on construct an impressive warehouse on Alexander Avenue that still occupies an entire city block. In 1961 it opened a warehouse on Wellington adjacent to the airport that would grow to some 650,000 square feet by 1967. IKEA is part of a new generation of retailers that blur the line between retail and warehouse, and -given the nature of its flat-pack furniture-it can more easily keep stock on hand.

The block-long former Eaton’s Warehouse between Alexander and Galt in the Exchange



Advantage Eaton’s: sure IKEA sells just about anything for your home from cookware to kitchens. But Eaton’s would also sell you clothing, jewelry, groceries- even a new house. Between 1911 and 1932 customers on the Prairies could order complete home packages that included windows and doors, shingles, hardwood floors and even the nails!


Eaton’s decline and fall reflects the declining fortunes of Department stores for several decades. Some like Eaton’s lagged in responding to the suburbanization of North America. Big Boxes and now e-commerce have also eroded sales. The Downtown Bay store now has half its floors closed off and is waiting for redevelopment. Nevertheless, recent U.S. data shows some high end stores like Nordstrom are growing, bucking the downward trend of mid-market chains.

IKEA has ridden the big-box wave, and its catalogue sales have smoothly migrated to the internet. IKEA represents the contemporary global business model, sourcing product around the world. Winnipeg was only the second Eaton’s store. Now retailers are international. IKEA has 325 stores in 40 countries. The recent IKEA catalogue had 38 editions in 17 languages for 28 countries.

More in Common:

Both IKEA and Eaton’s had hugely successful catalogue sales.

Both had restaurants with seating for hundreds-IKEA reports seating for 651 customers.

Both expected to pull in substantial numbers of visitors from outside Winnipeg.

Did You Know?

IKEA and the Seasons of Tuxedo development are to be served by a Geo-thermal system for their heating and cooling.

IKEA is not just a tenant but is reported to be a major investor in the Seasons of Tuxedo.

Eaton’s was a very big fish in a small pond. In 1960 it was estimated that 50 cents of every Winnipeg retail dollar –excluding groceries-were spent at the Portage Avenue Eaton’s store.

Eaton’s would not totally phase out horse drawn delivery until 1950!

Believe it or not: in 2009 an opera about the IKEA story-“Wunder von Schweden” (Miracle From Sweden)- was staged in Germany.

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