Hockey sweaters and e-commerce


A recent comment on this very blog has triggered a lot of thoughts I’ve had about e-commerce in Canada. Erica pointed out many examples: it really sucks. No thanks, just browsing, online shoppers say was the original article that blames under-developed e-commerce in Canada for the lack of Canadians making online purchases. And, it shouldn’t have to be that way.

The Hockey Sweater by Roch CarrierAs far as I’m concerned, online shopping is an extension of an activity long-practiced throughout Canada: catalogue shopping. Le chandail de hockey (or The Hockey Sweater) by Roch Carrier is an excellent example of this. Some people may say that the short story reveals the importance of hockey to Canadian society. I say it tells the tale of a failed B2C transaction. And, being nice Canadians, the mother in the story doesn’t want to return the sweater in case it might offend M. Eaton.

The printed Eaton’s catalogue was the public face for Eaton’s in rural Canada. Although the Eaton’s catalogue was the biggest, Canada also had the Sears catalogue, the Canadian Tire catalogue, and (the ultimate) Consumer’s Distributing. Canadians were more than happy to make purchasing decisions based on a single drawing or photograph of the item, a brief description and the listed price. Consumer’s Distributing was a catalogue store. You picked out your item in the catalogue, filled out a form in the store, and handed it to the cashier. Someone would run and fetch you your purchase from the back.

The model for Consumer’s Distributing was probably inspired by Canadian liquor stores. Most Canadian liquor stores used to require you to enter an uninviting environment where you looked at the book of booze. You then had to fill out a form and hand it to a cashier. The liquor control board employee would scrutinize your form, verify your age, and have someone get you your bottle of scotch (or whatever) from the back. Consumer’s Distributing went bankrupt – possibly because they didn’t have a monopoly like the liquor stores.

I, like most Canadians, was trained to make purchases by filling out forms at places like Consumer’s Distributing. I eyed my plastic Cabbage Patch doll carrier, saved by money and filled out my Consumer’s Distributing form. It prepared me to become the online shopper that I am today. Last week, I placed four separate orders online.

Personally, I’ve abandoned carts of goods because I couldn’t figure out Canada Post’s BorderFree program. I use over or IndigoChapters for searching and browsing because it’s just full of more features. I’ve been completely confused after being handed a printed Williams-Sonoma catalogue in Canadian Williams-Sonoma stores. When I want to buy more W-S booty, there are “web-only” items. Does the web site ship to Canada? No. Can you have the items shipped to one of their Canadian locations? Ha!

It’s not the Canadians who won’t shop online. We’re an entire nation of shoppers willing to fill out elaborate forms with minimal descriptions and product imagery. If retailers think that e-commerce is too much of a hassle, they’re losing out on a huge market of Canadians willing – and able – to fill out confusing forms.

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