Left to right: Sam Sebastian of Google Canada, Satish Kanwar of Shopify, Ben Burmaster of Snuggle Bugz, James Connell of Roots Canada. Retail Spark, Nov. 3, 2014.
Left to right: Sam Sebastian of Google Canada, Satish Kanwar of Shopify, Ben Burmaster of Snuggle Bugz, James Connell of Roots Canada. Retail Spark, Nov. 3, 2014.

Published: November 4th, 2014

Halloween had just barely wrapped up when the pumpkins were whisked away, the candy all eaten, and stores started putting up trees and tinsel ahead of Christmas.

It may seem a little early, but big and small retailers alike know the holiday season is the best time of the year to generate sales – and if small businesses are online, they stand a fighting chance in competing with bigger retailers.

At least, that was one of the messages coming out of Retail Spark, an event held Monday in Toronto. Organized by Google Canada and the Retail Council of Canada, the event attracted 300 small to mid-sized business (SMB) owners, many of whom wanted to learn the ins and outs of tools like AdWords and Google My Business.

(Image: Google Canada).
(Image: Google Canada).

“Competition is fierce, and although it takes a little bit of work, it’s not all that difficult to very quickly get online … If you’re not there, the competition will be,” said Sam Sebastian, managing director of Google Canada, in a talk at Retail Spark. He added the Internet is the number one place consumers go when they’re looking for gift ideas, so it’s key to be accessible online.

“You have to be found and discovered. The Web is a massive place, either in search engines, on YouTube, on video, on Facebook – it’s this massive sandbox. In order to get found, you’ll have to do things [a little] differently, or you’re just going to sink into the vast space of the Internet.”

The trouble is, there’s something of a disconnect between small businesses and e-commerce. While small businesses stand to benefit from reaching more customers online, many of them don’t even have a real web presence.

In a recent survey of 290 Canadian small to mid-sized business (SMB) owners and marketers, researchers from Ipsos MediaCT found 61 per cent of independent retailers don’t have a website or online presence.

That doesn’t mean the desire to be online is lacking, though. Forty-nine per cent of respondents said they want to use the Internet to promote themselves, but need help figuring out how – and they miss out on the chance to generate more sales during the holidays. About 66 per cent of SMBs said they hadn’t planned to advertise for Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

And given that Canadian consumers are heavy Internet users, that can be a problem, Sebastian said. After moving to Canada from the U.S. about six months ago, he said he feels Canadian businesses are a few years behind their U.S. counterparts when it comes to e-commerce.

“[As] more customers [are] recognizing the need to be online, as consumer expectations rise – frankly, that’s part of the push and pull. In the U.S., you had a lot of online retailers set expectations very, very high for consumers. You had Amazon … a lot of these players redefining the Web experience for searching for different things, and then everyone began catching up,” he said in an interview, adding Canadian brands like Loblaws and Canadian Tire are now forging ahead to serve consumers here.

Still, on a smaller scale, SMBs can turn to tools like Google My Business and AdWords to build out their profile online, Sebastian said. They can also look at investing in video and mobile advertising, though it might be wise to start with video first as it’s easier, he added.

And then there are marketing tools that any small business can use. During Retail Spark, Snuggle Bugz, a company providing baby products to new parents, showed how it’s succeeded with Google AdWords for display ads. It’s also tapping into Google Analytics for data on what’s selling well, where customers are coming from, and so on. SMBs can also learn from Canadian brands like Roots Canada Ltd., which uses social media extensively to showcase its wares.

Beyond getting online, SMBs should try to win customers by demonstrating their uniqueness, said Satish Kanwar, director of product at Shopify, a platform providing more than 120,000 merchants with e-commerce ready websites.

Being unique means being competitive, which is important as they don’t have the clout of the Walmarts of the world, he added. That might mean showing off a unique selection of products, unique merchandise (like handcrafted goods), unique pricing, or a unique customer experience.

“You’re the expert on something, and you brought together products that your customers trust in that area … [Or] you’ve made something with your hands and your team, or you’ve sourced something with a unique idea of your own,” Kanwar said.

“All these things that used to be very, very difficult have become much easier and, shall I say, democratized … The opportunity is there.”

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