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Digitizing the experience

74% of Canadians treasure the social aspect of shopping - so e-tailers are integrating with the real thing

That angora cardigan from that new online store looks like it might make a great holiday gift for your sister-in-law; it’s the right colour and style she prefers. But you hold back from making the purchase. You can’t touch the fabric, nor can you even hold it up to see how it might fit or ask a customer service rep about fabric care instructions.

Such is the challenge for e-tailers and consumers alike. But some clicks-and-mortar retailers are responding to these concerns by making their e-tail sites easier to navigate and enhancing their online offerings via a greater focus on better customer service and interactivity that recreates the tangible, in-person retail experience.

And with good reason: a recent study by Toronto-based ComQUEST Research found that 73% of Canadian adults feel the Internet is an essential part of their lives. Meanwhile, the e-commerce spend has been rising: according to Statistics Canada, combined private- and public-sector online sales were $13.7 billion in 2002, up 27.2% from 2001.

But while the upcoming online holiday spending for 2003 is expected to increase by 21% in the U.S., according to Darien, Conn.-based Jupiter Research, Canadians lag far behind their American counterparts when it comes to online shopping. Recent findings from research conducted by Canada Post highlight some important reasons why this might be the case.

The report, ‘Consumers Attitudes Towards Direct Marketing,’ revealed at a recent direct-mail conference organized by the Canadian Marketing Association, shows that Canadians differ significantly from Americans in their attitudes towards shopping in general. It seems that Canadians – 74% of those surveyed, in fact – prefer the social aspect of traditional shopping.

‘Canadians like going in-person,’ says Joanne McNeish, director of marketing research for Ottawa-based Canada Post. ‘Online still feels very uncertain for them because they like to see and touch things.’ Other concerns raised in the research included the fact that consumers found the online/direct order shopping process complicated and/or time-consuming (82%), and that it was difficult to find what they were looking for (88%).

Recreating the ‘touch-and-feel’ experience is particularly relevant to clothing e-tailers, where the tactile quality of clothing is paramount to the consumer. To convey that ‘being there’ feeling, Montreal-based lingerie clicks-and-mortar retailer La Senza recently launched a live Webcast of a holiday fashion show. Taking a cue from U.S.-based Victoria’s Secret (whose notorious fashion show has flooded the Internet and crashed many a computer), the company relayed a Webcast runway event featuring models strutting their stuff in La Senza’s silk and satin bras and panties. The Webcast was e-mailed to 200,000 La Senza subscribers at the end of November.

‘We felt it was a great idea to share our holiday collection with customers and provide them with a high-impact shopping experience,’ says Karine Wascher, VP marketing at La Senza. ‘We’re taking it to a new level by showing the merchandise on the models and showing how it fits, how it looks.’

The company is planning a redesign of the site in the coming weeks, says Wascher. In the meantime, she says online sales are increasing steadily: ‘We are seeing strong double-digit increases as we continue to offer new merchandise.’

Toronto-based Danier Leather has responded to similar challenges head-on with features that allow the consumer to interface not only with the product, but also with customer service reps in real time. The e-commerce site (danier.com) uses Webcam software from Chicago-based True Look that enables customers to get a live view of the leather goods company’s Toronto flagship store. A live chat option allows visitors to connect directly with store staff; for example, customers can even ask staff to try on a jacket or other items for size or take a picture document of the requested item.

‘We encourage people to reach out and touch us,’ says Kevin Strachan, VP, e-commerce for Danier. ‘It’s almost like having a silent salesperson telling you how you look.’

Since shopping for leather is as much about the look of a jacket or pant as it is about the feel of the product, the Danier site also features a ‘touch-and-smell’ button which enables customers to request leather swatches free of charge. But Strachan says customers have not responded in record numbers. ‘We’ve always been surprised by how few people have asked for that,’ says Strachan. ‘Customers feel they don’t want to waste the time.’

Strachan says, however, that enhanced interactivity online has sped up the in-store sales process for Danier. ‘We have a lot of product to choose from and often we find customers going to the Web site and narrowing their selection,’ says Strachan. ‘Customers who come into the store who have been looking at the Web site will bring in printed pages [of items]. The salespeople appreciate this because they know they can satisfy the customer better and faster.’

Overall, in-store and online sales are increasing; Strachan says online, the company has experienced continual double-digit growth. ‘They’re solid numbers – still not the equivalent of 100 stores – but it does make a positive impact on the bottom line.’

Kodak Canada is addressing similar issues. The company recently launched its new e-commerce program which enables consumers to order all of Kodak’s products and services via Kodak.ca or participating retailer Web sites. Consumers can now upload pictures online and get them delivered to their homes, or they have the option of picking them up in-store.

The new service is a big step beyond the old e-commerce site, which launched in 1999, says Andree Gosselin O’Meara, manager of e-business operations for Kodak. ‘We’ve gone beyond just selling cameras to reflect[ing] a regular retail store.’

Based on extensive customer research culled from call centres and dealer stores, the e-stores have been redesigned for better navigation and the order-taking process has been expanded to accommodate those who do not wish to divulge credit information online. Customers can upload images directly to the retailer, for example, and pay for their purchases at the retail store. ‘Our goal is always customer satisfaction; providing more retail options improves the online shopping experience,’ says Gosselin O’Meara. Kodak has been advertising its e-stores on busy Web sites and portals for years, but is now looking at changing its marketing approach for e-commerce, says Gosselin O’Meara. ‘We’re doing some tests this Christmas and will look at different ways of marketing online.’

Future Shop, meanwhile, has found success by ensuring similarity between the online and in-store shopping environments. ‘We try to create a common experience online and offline,’ says Bob Pearson, divisional merchandising manager for Vancouver-based Future Shop. Pearson stresses that the Web site is often the first point of contact for consumers, and that the company is continuously looking to enhance the online experience and updates the site on a weekly basis.

Future Shop recently added the ‘Learn More’ option with links to product reviews and buyers guides for the company’s products. For example, the ‘Freezer Buying Guide’ has information on how to find the right model and size for one’s family, while ‘Ask the expert’ provides reviews of the latest products, like the iPod MP3 player.

The adjunct ‘Future Flash’ weekly e-mail newsletter – launched in fall 1999 – provides news on the latest technologies and products at Future Shop, and is e-mailed to the company’s 300,000-strong database. An interactive flyer on the site replicates those that are found in-store and visitors can check product availability with the click of a mouse.

Overall, Future Shop’s e-commerce strategy is working: Pearson says site visits are up by 50% and orders and sales volume are up by more than 100% over last year. Meanwhile, Futureshop.ca was tops in a survey of Canadians’ favourite online shopping Web sites by Canadian deal-finding site Redflagdeals.com (see ‘Top 10 Favourite Canadian Online Shopping Sites, left’).

‘We’ve not done anything in online advertising other than what we do in our regular advertising,’ says Pearson. ‘I think it’s about the depth of the catalogue and the experience we’re offering to customers.’

Top 10 Favourite Canadian Online Shopping Sites

Futureshop.ca

EBay.ca

Staples.ca

Amazon.ca

NCIX.com

Chapters.Indigo.ca

TigerDirect.ca

CanadianTire.ca

Dell.ca & Sears.ca (tied)

OfficeDepot.ca

Most Popular Items Purchased Online

Computer hardware

Electronics

DVDs

Books

Computer Software

Source: Online survey conducted by Canadian bargain-hunting site RedFlagDeals.com between October 21 and November 2, 2003.

2,832 visitors and registered users were polled.