Canadians love shopping online, but our businesses are missing out: Peter Nowak

What gives?

Buy button online

Two numbers regarding Canadian e-commerce caught my eye the other day, given that they were almost perfectly complementary. The first was an item from the Business Development Bank of Canada, which notes that about 30% of Canadian small businesses still don’t have a web presence. The second was a new report from trend tracker NPD Group, which finds that about 63% of Canadians like to shop online in order to save money.

The two figures do much to illustrate that while Canadians are great on the demand side of online transactions, they’re not so good on the supply side. The reasons why are varied, but ultimately unknown.

The BDC findings are especially poignant, since they highlight a big problem. “It is critical for small business to get ahead of Internet trends and manage their image, including managing online reviews,” said Pierre Cléroux, chief economist for the BDC. “And it’s not just having a website. They need more than that – they also need a strategy on the web.”

While Canadians would like to buy local, they inevitably turn to foreign e-tailers when they find no Canadian options, which means that a good chunk of money is leaving the country and thus not necessarily contributing to the economy.

The BDC’s report jibes with what companies such as Google have been saying for some time. The search company has talked about Canadian businesses’ reluctance to strategically use everything from YouTube to online advertising as part of their strategies.

The slowness to adopt new technologies is generally attributed to companies’ conservatism, which means they aren’t quick to innovate but would rather watch what others do first. “I think the laggard issues are probably just related to time as they start to see more and more samples of what they can do with the platform,” said Marshall Shelf, head of media solutions at Google Canada.

That conservatism is at odds with how Canadians use the Internet, which is quite liberally, according to just about every study out there. Canadians are among the most prodigious users of Facebook, YouTube and pretty much everything else on the web. Shopping, as NPD notes, is up there too.

So what gives? Why are consumers so digitally adept but businesses not? There are many theories: high taxes, expensive tools and services, and a cultural aversion to risk have all been cited, but I’ve yet to see a properly scientific study on the topic.

It’s a fundamental question that should be formally studied, and then addressed through a plan. Like, say, that digital strategy the federal government has promised for years, but has so far failed to deliver.