TORONTO, Ont. — The recent announcement that Canadian Tire is going to have a fuel monopoly at all 23 of Ontario’s 400-series highway service centres provides some comfort, if not heightened expectations, to freeway travellers who have seen some of these sites closed and shuttered for years.
Canada’s largest independent petroleum retailer has inked a deal with Host-Kilmer Service Centres to build and operate the fuel bars and adjacent convenience stores for the next 50 years. (And who knows what kind of fuel they’ll be selling 50 years from now – hydrogen, natural gas, plutonium)?
Seven of the fuel bars on the 401 are expected to be up and running this summer, including Morrisburg, Bainsville, Trenton North (Wooler), Tilbury North and South, West Lorne and Dutton.
According to Susan Goyette, senior director of communications for US parent company HMS Host, “The fuel offering from Canadian Tire includes gasoline at all sites and diesel in a number of locations. Each site will have no less than two fuelling positions of diesel for commercial vehicles.”
CTC spokesperson Rebecca Mills confides that these won’t be high-speed pumps or a cardlock system, but she does expect fuel will be “competitively priced.” Mills won’t speculate on how much fuel CTC will sell at these locations, but I can almost see her eyes light up over the phone when she mentions that the fuel bar venues are expected to generate “six million transactions per year.”
This is a good fit for CTC. They will enhance their brand and get their funny money into the pockets of the travelling public, who might then be enticed to stop at their stores in the towns alongside the highway.
It’s rare to see a big truck tanking up at these highway stops. It’s usually someone who is low on fuel or a lost American driver who doesn’t know the location of the next truck stop. But the lure of the cash coupons may be incentive enough. Canadians are intimately familiar with the moustached Scotsman mascot “Sandy McTire,” and CTC execs are hoping American motorists will be just as keen on the currency.
According to CTC folklore, the idea of giving in-house cash coupons for gas sales was the inspiration of Muriel Billes, wife of founder A.J. Billes. In the late 1950s, big oil companies were offering dishes and towels as bonuses to customers. Muriel thought that CTC patrons would like to receive vouchers that could be used in any of the stores. The first Canadian Tire money was introduced at the Yonge and Davenport gas bar in Toronto in 1958. It quickly caught on and became part of our culture.
During the mid-80s, when the concept of “happy hours” (half-priced booze) was going viral in Ontario taverns and watering holes, some of the bars promoted Canadian Tire Happy Hours and openly accepted the bills in payment for drinks.
CTC money is still highly regarded and collectable. Numismatists anxiously await new issues, and rare editions of the bills can be worth hundreds of dollars. Most suburban or rural Canadians have fat wads of Canadian Tire money somewhere in their dresser or kitchen drawers. Last month the Wingham Free Press reported that a break-in at a house in Mitchell, Ont. had netted thieves a Wii game and… “Over $100 of Canadian Tire money was also taken.”
CTC has always had a close relationship with its transport providers (Canada Cartage has been hauling their loads for decades). At one time, it was the best-paying job you could get as an owner/operator in Canada. By the time I started working there in the 80s and 90s, banging cans around the Brampton warehouse and delivering them to CN and CP intermodal terminals, the fleet of beautiful rigs and proud independent contractors were just about phased-out.
Not surprisingly, CTC wants lots of work from trucking providers. Their analysts break an hour into six-minute segments so they can evaluate each work unit in decimals. While I was working there, they expected drivers to pre-trip CTC tractors before going on the clock. And they gave us 10 minutes to drop and hook in the yard which was no easy feat when you’re dealing with thousands of trailers, some of them blocked in two deep.
However, CTC’s perseverance and thriftiness has been its own reward. Beside a network of 475 franchise stores across the country, it operates its own bank, Canadian Tire Financial Services, and has a reciprocal agreement with Mastercard. Its Mark’s Work Warehouse outlet stores also stretch from sea to sea.
But it’s also had its share of debacles. Older patrons might recall a time when CanTire’s auto parts were second-rate and the hired help was untrained and helpless. Over the years, CTC has tried twice to break into the US market and failed both times: first in the 1980s by acquiring the White Auto Store chain, based primarily in Texas, which eventually cost them $200 million to fold; and in 1991 when they attempted to start the Auto Source chain in the US with ambitious plans to open 100-plus stores in the mid-west, which cost it $80.6 million when it was sold at a loss.
Patrons may humorously call it ‘Crappy Tire,’ but the iconic brand’s connection with this country has deep roots. Alongside Tim Horton’s, Canadian Tire is the most recognized brand in the country. The first catalogue was issued in 1928, and most of us began a relationship with the retailer at a young age. My dad bought me my first hockey stick form there while I was still a pre-schooler at that same Yonge and Davenport flagship store. Customers would fill out slips with their purchase numbers and order-pickers would dash about on roller skates in the basement and send the items up on a conveyer belt. This was fascinating to a four-year-old.
According to Wikipedia, it is estimated that 85% of Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a CTC store, and that nine out of 10 Canadians will shop at the store at least twice a year.
And while share prices have declined slightly over the last five years, CanTire seems poised to weather the storms caused by retailer giants like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Moat CTC stores are recently renovated, and although the displays seem unfocused and directed towards impulse-buying, the formula seems to work. I stopped at the massive Stockyards store in Toronto recently to buy some Allen keys and came away with paper towels, bird seed, laundry detergent and two bags of sheep manure.
But it’s not clear how the CTC highway fuel bars will benefit truck drivers. Truckers aren’t mentioned in the press releases, and spokesperson Mills told me that their interest is not “predominantly” commercial drivers. Rather, she says, they are looking to the “consumer” as their primary focus.
Most people don’t realize that trucks outnumber four-wheelers on the highways at night, and we use those service centres 24/7. Furthermore, most truckers love to browse in the aisles of a Canadian Tire store. No doubt we will buy windshield wipers and anti-freeze at their kiosks, but perhaps CTC execs will eventually understand that truck drivers are a captive niche market that could be very good for business.
Regardless, anything is better than the current portable washrooms and vending machines in trailers. According to Goyette of HMS Host, when Phase One is completed in September, Wi-Fi connections will be available at the first seven centres, and we can look forward to “enhanced and diverse food offerings – including healthy options.”
I don’t know about that. The line-up for the first phase reads pretty much like standard fast food fare: A&W, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Pizza, Taco Bell, and Tim Horton’s. And just like the old days, how much do you want to bet that Tim’s will be the only food vendor open at night? Plus ca change…
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