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Vancouver Goes Crazy for Red Mittens

5 minute read
Sean Gregory / Vancouver

Candace Burnet, an employment counselor from Vancouver, figured now was the perfect time to get her hands on Canada’s hottest product. We’re talking, of course, about those red mittens covering the hands of what seems like all of Vancouver.

The world first fell in love with the mittens, made by the Toronto-based Hudson’s Bay Co., during the opening ceremonies, when the Canadians wore them as they circled the track during the parade of nations. With the maple leaf and the five Olympic rings stitched into the gloves, they seemed to cover all the bases — national pride, Olympic fever, the cuteness factor. But it’s not just Canadians who are obsessing over them. Oprah herself gave them a shout-out on Feb. 19, lifting their cachet, and sales, into the stratosphere.

(See TIME’s full coverage of the 2010 Winter Games.)

Burnet had gotten a call from her family in Baltimore: her sister, niece and nephew each wanted a pair. And since most of the city was presumably glued to the TV watching Canada play Russia in the quarterfinals of the men’s hockey tournament, Burnet bet she wouldn’t have to fight crowds at the Bay in downtown Vancouver, the parent company’s flagship retail outlet. “Boy, was I wrong,” Burnet said, after waiting 20 minutes in a line that snaked around the block. Mittens trumping Olympic hockey? Darn, these things better be comfortable. (They are.)

They’re also affordable, at just $10 a pop, and for Canadians they’re an easy way to show off national pride. A maple leaf is smartly stitched on the palm of each glove. “They’re a good way to show your spirit,” says Jennifer Boysen, a McDonald’s store manager from Acton, Ont. “When you wave, it’s like you’re waving the Canadian flag. And they keep you warm during hockey games.”

In 2005 Hudson’s Bay Co., a 339-year-old retailer that is the oldest in North America, signed a sponsorship deal with the Canadian Olympic Committee through the 2012 Olympics. Hudson’s Bay owns 92 Bay department stores in Canada, the Canadian general-merchandise chain Zellers and the Lord & Taylor retail chain in the U.S. Jeffrey Sherman, who was installed as CEO in September 2008, after Hudson’s Bay was bought by Connecticut-based private-equity firm NRDC Equity Partners, wanted to use the Vancouver Olympics as a platform to reconnect the company with its Canadian heritage. He gave his design team simple instructions. “We needed something that wasn’t so much a souvenir for the Games,” says Sherman, “but a product that would have life long beyond 16 days.”

(See pictures of the Olympics’ fabulous fans.)

Enter cozy mittens. Sherman says the company has sold about 3.5 million pairs since their October 2009 debut; thanks to the Olympics, 1.5 million have cleared the shelves since Feb. 1. But get this: Hudson’s Bay does not make a dime off the phenomenon. Net proceeds from mitten sales go right to the Canadian Olympic Committee to fund athletes’ programs. To date, Sherman says the mittens have generated $12 million in net proceeds. Does he regret not negotiating a cut? “Not at all,” he says. “We entered into this to do the right thing.” What’s more, Sherman notes that mitten-mania has increased traffic to the stores, helping boost sales for other items.

A smattering of mittens is available in a few Bay and Zellers stores around Canada. But if you haven’t gotten them yet, don’t count on snaring a pair; they’re about to be retired for the season. “We’re now moving into the end of winter, and the new season is about to begin,” Sherman says. “The challenge will be trying to repeat this next winter.” His message to folks who want Hudson’s Bay to keep restocking the shelves for just a few more weeks: “I’m sorry.”

Will Candace Burnet be one of the lucky customers and make her Baltimore relatives happy? As soon as she enters the store, she darts toward an attendant to ask if the mittens are available. Adult sizes are sold out, she’s told, but she can try the youth section.

Her sister and 24-year-old nephew are out of luck. But there’s still hope for her 13-year-old niece. Burnet grabs one of the last remaining pairs in the youth section and stops a 12-year-old girl who is shopping with her mother. “Do you mind trying these on?” she asks, hoping to discern whether the gloves could fit the hands of her niece. The girl slips on the mitts, looks at her hand and wiggles her fingers. “They’re too tight,” she says. Game over. Burnet says she’ll keep searching, but for now, in her quest for this hot item, she’s out in the cold.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com