E-shopping experts advise use of multiple channels to boost sales

TORONTO – The Canadian online shopping experience continues to show growth and promise, but experts suggest it may still lack the pizzazz and muscle that characterizes U.S. Web retailers.

“We certainly recognize that shopping habits evolve,” said Ralph McNeil, vice-president of consumer marketing for HP Canada. There is an “overwhelming requirement and desire amongst consumers for choice – a choice of product and how that transaction will take place.”

Ralph McNeil was one of four speakers on a Tuesday panel organized by retail consulting firm the J.C. Williams Group. McNeil said that HP works with its retail partners in all aspects of consumer management, including the so-called “final four feet” that describes the line-up at the cash register. HP also offers its own Canadian shopping portal at HPShopping.ca.

One of the keys to offering a full service Web offering is to make sure it integrates with other aspects of shopping, said McNeil, including catalogue mail-order sales and brick-and-mortar sales. For example, some people prefer to browse products online but shop in an actual store. Others may prefer the reverse. The shopping experience “really needs to be continuous and float through,” he said.

“We’re starting to see consumer behaviour really change,” agreed Patrick Bartlett, vice-president of Canada Post‘s direct marketing division. But Canadian retailers need to be more adaptive to this change, he said. “The barrier has been an underserving of the market” for online consumer market here. “Canadian retailers really need to step up to the plate in a big way.”

By adopting a multi-channel strategy, Canadian stores “are going to see a lift in sales,” he said. “Consumers want choice. Those guys who are going to those people choice are going to win in this battle.”

Retailers in Canada are “very well developed in the first spots where online works” such as books, electronics and travel, but lack the depth of product selection that’s available from their U.S. counterparts. It’s not uncommon for American shoppers to buy lawn furniture or health and beauty products online, he said.

According to Jim Okamura, a senior partner at J.C. Williams, only two per cent of all retail sales in Canada are conducted on the Web. In the U.K., it’s five per cent and in the U.S., six. Despite the fact that Canada lags, the market is growing dramatically. Estimates range from 30 to 40 per cent annually, depending on the numbers are being reported. “That’s really where retailers are sitting up and taking notice,” said Okamura.

By introducing services that are unique to the Internet, businesses can carve out a larger piece of the online pie, said McNeil. HP, for example, offers a digital photo service where consumers can store their pictures online or have them printed on mugs or T-shirts.

Businesses need to promote these types of services more, said Bartlett. “I think the big issue is around marketing,” he said. “We need to encourage (new consumers) to try and use (the Web).”

According to a recent study of 2,000 Canadian shoppers conducted by J.C. Williams, the No. 1 reason people are wary of the Internet is security concerns. Of the 688 that said they hadn’t shopped online, 42 per cent said they were worried about credit card concerns and 36 per cent were worried about posting their private information.

The perception of security problems continue to linger, despite the best efforts of online retailers to provide a safe shopping environment.

Visa Canada is attempting to do its part by providing an additional layer of security for online shoppers. The company introduced its “Verified by Visa” service whereby card holders can type in a password at the time they make an online purchase in order to confirm their identity. Canadian retailers that are currently subscribing to the service include Dell and Air Canada. MasterCard Canada introduced a similar service earlier this week.

Mike Bradley, vice-president of new platforms and products for Visa Canada, said that 1.5 million card holders have signed up for their passwords and that 20 per cent of all card holders have shopped online. He said, “They’re comfortable that they’re going to get finality of payment” without any unexpected security snafus.

“We’ve certainly seen these concerns ease over time,” said Okamura. One simple, user-friendly experience can cement the Web as a viable medium for shoppers, he said. “Uneventful is good.”

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