In the aisles with Wendy Liebmann

Strategy chatted with WSL's chief shopper to hear about cross-border trends, what makes Canadians unique, and everyone's favourite topic, big data.

At the second-annual Shopper Marketing Forum, strategy sat down with Aussie-turned-Yank Wendy Liebmann after her morning keynote session to discuss the differences between Canadian and American shoppers. The CEO and chief shopper of New York-based WSL Strategic Retail, a retail strategy and consulting firm, has spent years studying shoppers, and last year took a pulse on what makes us different on either side of the border.

She found that Canadian shoppers were less likely than Americans to use coupons or online discounts (75% and 85% respectively), but more likely to shop at discount grocery or dollar stores, providing tremendous opportunities for retailers venturing north of the border. But for them (and local shops who might not understand Canadian retailers as much as they think), she breaks down some core differences between the two nations. Read on to hear her thoughts on what makes Canadian shoppers unique.

Why did you study the differences between the two nations?

Canada has always been a fascinating market. It’s had its own unique POV, and for a very long time, the majority of retailers in this country were Canadian. And now [that] some of the big U.S. players are coming to Canada, it shakes it all up. It’s going to be really extraordinary to think about what this market is going to look like 18 months from now as the Canadian shopper puts her own stamp on retail and U.S. retailers learn her subtleties.

Just because we speak the same language, doesn’t mean we live and shop the same way. In the end, U.S. retailers [will treat Canada] with the 10% rule: Everything will be exactly the same, and sales will be 10% [of what is made in the U.S]. I knew that wasn’t the case and there was much greater nuances.

What are some of the key differences you found?

There are a lot of similarities, but when Canadian shoppers think about getting the best prices, it’s not necessarily that they’re as coupon hungry – and that may be because retailers in Canada aren’t as coupon focused as U.S. retailers. What I recognized in my research was that a higher percentage of Canadian shoppers shop in the dollar or deep-discount grocery stores – like a Maxi or a FreshCo – than U.S. shoppers. It’s not that Canadian shoppers aren’t looking for a great deal or great value, but they’re getting it in different ways.

Why do these stores draw in more people here?

I think it’s the fact that those types of retailers have existed [longer in Canada] and have integrated into a shopper’s portfolio of places to shop. In the U.S., we didn’t have many of that kind of format of discount grocers, though those types of retailers have grown in the last five or six years. Canadian shoppers always had places to shop at deep discount on an everyday basis.

What other differences are you seeing?

The other point of difference was the way Canadian shoppers engage with digital and online as opposed to how the U.S. shoppers do. There was a sense when we finished the study that Canadians have been slower to adopt the internet – and I said, that’s not true, look at the way Canadians use the internet to do their banking. But rather, it was a different mindset. [Canadians say] “I’m going to do my banking, and my homework before I buy in store [but might not buy online].” But it’s also the number of places where you can actually buy online. As [companies] like Amazon open warehouses and distribution centres here, things will change the way Canadian shoppers approach shopping online. But certainly at this stage, if I were a U.S. retailer looking at the Canadian market, I may say, “Well I don’t have to discount as much because Canadians aren’t as engaged in coupons,” and “Oh I don’t have to do as much online because they aren’t doing much online.” And that would be a big mistake.

And this isn’t about price per se, it’s about value. We hear those terms interchangeably used, and they’re not. I think that’s one of the reasons why shopper marketing initiatives are important because it helps you understand where it is about the lower price and where it isn’t about the lowest price but about a really good price. Where you can get customers and shoppers to think about spending a bit more because the entire experience is a bit more valuable to them.

Which Canadian retailers or manufacturers have done that very well?

One that strikes me is Club Monaco [which] launched at a time when fast, cheap and cheerful fashion was growing around the world. They took a different approach. You never got the sense from Club Monaco that it was about cheap and cheerful and wear it for a season and toss it out. It was about affordable trend-right fashion. They’ve continued to quietly do a very good job of living in the middle tier, while there’s been a lot of competition in that space to get lower-priced fashion shoppers. They were clearly offering product at a really good price.

M.A.C [Cosmetics] – same thing, a great value proposition. You’d never think of them as inexpensive but they’re an incredibly good value brand of cosmetics that created a very unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s one of the few retailers around the world where it’s always busy.

Which shopper marketing trends would you highlight as something to watch?

The whole notion of big data – as companies collect more and more of it [is a trend to watch]. The biggest challenge now: it’s easy to collect, but the greatest opportunity is the ability to look at that data in a way to see nuances between different shoppers.

I use the example of Their ability to think about who’s the shopper who would be most opportunistic – so moms with new babies – and continue to learn more and more about that person and what more they could sell her in an environment that’s about convenience, trust and ease. [ branched into and when it learned pregnancy will change the type of soap and beauty products a woman buys;, when it realized many young families have pets; and, which offers toys for young kids.]

I think it’s very tempting for a lot of retailers and multinational brands to think about this notion of one-size-fits-all, [saying] “It’s a big world of shoppers and we want to sell them one more thing.”

We’ve really gotten to the point where we can carve out segments of shoppers in ways that help define a very specific target, very specific audience, and create programs that help target that very specific shopper. We’ve got the data to do it. But a lot of companies are in the phase of collecting stuff, rather than really in a very fine way, mining that data.

 Check out strategy‘s past Q&A’s with  and Sears’ John Rocco, Rona’s Karim Salabi and Metro’s Nancy Modrcin.