UFA closing Wholesale Sports, ending 545 jobs

CALGARY — The Wholesale Sports chain of a dozen hunting, fishing and camping supply stores in Western Canada is shutting down after 30 years in business, leaving 545 workers without jobs.

The operation owned by Calgary-based UFA Co-operative Ltd. closed stores on Thursday afternoon to tell workers their jobs would be ending by year-end. Inventory liquidation sales are to begin on Friday and run until Dec. 28.

No new online purchases are to be processed, the company said, adding all current online orders will be filled.

CEO Carol Kitchen said UFA — the former United Farmers of Alberta — bought the retail chain in 2008 in an attempt to diversify the member-owned company away from its traditional agricultural and fuel services.

But stiff competition and falling sales convinced the UFA board it was time to go back to its traditional focus.

“If you think about Cabela’s, Bass Pro and others entering the marketplace, they were not in place 10 years ago in 2008,” she said in an interview.

“We are a 109-year-old organization that has its roots in rural Alberta and that’s where our focus will be in the future.”

Kitchen said the company considered selling the chain with stores in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba but concluded shutting it down was the best option. She said it has been profitable over the time it was owned by UFA.

The chain reported revenue of $103 million in 2016, down nine per cent from $113 million in 2015.

Kitchen wouldn’t say how much it will cost UFA to end the leases on its stores.

The news comes at a time of consolidation for outdoors destination superstores with American giant Bass Pro Shops snapping up rival Cabela’s in a US$4.5-billion deal announced a year ago. Both U.S. companies operate stores in Canada.

Kitchen said the growth in online purchasing has also hurt sales at Wholesale Sports’ brick-and-mortar outlets.

Retail analyst John Williams of J.C. Williams Group said website stores are hurting all big box chains because they offer consumers more choices. He said he expects more consolidation to come in most big box store categories.

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