Canadian market tips for U.S. e-commerce sites, part 2

January 21, 2011 — In last week’s blog posting we discussed the most common barriers that U.S.-based e-commerce web sites face in serving Canadian customers. If your site can deal with those issues, you’ll be able to accept, bill, fulfill, and support international orders from Canada.

But what’s the next level?

Manufacturers that do business internationally typically adapt their product packaging, documentation, sales literature, marketing messages, and service processes to create a local market “look and feel”. A successfully localized product fits in and appears to have been developed within the local market, while still taking advantage of its brand.

For your web site, it means considering such items as language, legal regulations, time zones, currency, national holidays, dealer and service deport locations, cultural aspects, colour implications, local product names, and social and gender roles.

So, the next level would be a separate localized Canadian web site with different content. You can’t make your U.S. site do double-duty and use the same content while addressing all of these items; this is why multinationals have a drop-down menu on their home page that allows you to select a country-specific version.

 We hope this posting will help you decide if you need to create a localized site for your Canadian customers. Expect it to be a major project, even more difficult than making a Spanish version of your web site for U.S. customers. And remember — you’ll have two separate sites to maintain so your webmaster’s work will be doubled.

BTW, we assume that you won’t be setting up a Canadian subsidiary, but continue to operate from within the United States. Firms often link these two decisions together by setting up a national sales subsidiary with the mandate to develop a local market web site.

Localization means translation, doesn’t it?

 Localization of written materials usually starts with translation, but don’t worry too much about the differences between Canadian and U.S. English. Canadians see U.S. spelling and hear U.S. slang all the time thanks to media spill-over; the typical cable TV viewer probably watches just as many U.S. channels as Canadian ones.

If you feel it is a concern, you can always import your web content into Word, change the language setting to Canadian English, and spell check away. You might also wish to start a writing guide for your webmaster, a list of words in American English and their equivalents in Canadian English such as “color” and “colour”, “mile” and “kilometre”.

What about French?

French is one of Canada’s two official languages and a significant decision will be whether you offer a French-Canadian version of your site. Doing so means you will need TWO additional localized Canadian versions.

Under Canada’s Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, product labelling and accompanying materials such as warranties must be in both English and French for pre-packaged products sold to consumers. But that’s for retail operations selling consumer products on Canadian soil (it might be prudent to verify this with a Canadian legal expert if you carry consumer products).

So a French version of a U.S.-based e-commerce web site isn’t mandatory -– that’s a marketing and business decision under your control. According to Statistics Canada (Languages in Canada, 2001 Census), French is the mother tongue of 23% of Canadians and about 18% of Canadians are bilingual. Assuming that you aren’t specifically targeting francophones, you can serve over three-quarters of the Canadian population in English.

Just as UK English is much different from American English, Canadian French is different from the French used in France. If you do develop a French version of your site, it makes sense to find a translator or writer who is French Canadian, and check any existing French translations provided with products imported from France or other francophone countries.

Are your technical specifications in SI?

Canada is officially metric, but — surprisingly — most Canadian adults are not comfortable with all measurements in either the metric or the British Imperial systems.

Not much changed when Canada started its multi-year conversion to the metric system (officially called the Système International d’Unités or SI) in the early 1970s. Most products continued to be produced in the same package sizes with modified labels since the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act required that SI units be shown.

For example, supermarkets are full of products packaged in 454 gram tin cans; this the former one pound size. But there are plenty of exceptions. 2×4’s are still sold as 2×4’s and a sheet of plywood is still sold as being four by eight feet.

The norm today is to provide specifications in both systems. If you decide to use only one, use the SI system.

Here’s the checkpoint: Do you have -– or can you obtain — metric specs (dimensions, weights, cable lengths, temperature ratings, etc.) for all of your products? Do your suppliers provide them?

This issue is proportional to the number of products that you carry; not such a big deal for a manufacturer with a dozen or two products and a very big deal for a site selling thousands of SKUs.

One catalogue database or two?

Your localized web site will need to access product descriptions suitable for the Canadian market. The site can either use a second catalogue database with Canadian information (and maybe a third for French), or you can add and revise information in your existing database.

This is a business as well as a technical decision.

From the business side, consider if your marketing messages and product descriptions need to be changed for the different markets. If so, you’ll need to create a second database as part of your web site development project.

If you go with one database, will the operational process of modifying all the catalogue information interfere with sales?

Global or localised pricing?

This is a complex multifaceted question: what price do international customers pay, in what currency do they pay, with what financial instrument do they pay, what are the terms and conditions, and in what currency do you receive revenue? If you want to invoice, you should investigate exporting to manage the risk of bad debts.

To oversimplify, if you can use credit card payment there are two basic choices:

  1. State prices and accept payment on the Canadian site in U.S. dollars, and let the customer’s credit card company convert currency and add on their conversion fee; or,
  2. State prices and accept payment in Canadian dollars, and have your merchant account handle the currency conversion.

If you use Canadian currency you’ll need either a software widget that dynamically converts your U.S. prices to Canadian dollars on the fly, or to set local fixed prices in Canadian dollars. Setting fixed prices will require price reviews. Canadian cross-border shoppers are always looking for bargains, so keeping your Canadian prices competitive with Canadian suppliers is vital, especially now when the two dollars are at parity.

Don’t just stick a maple leaf on it!

Seriously consider if your current web site might be poorly designed — or even off-putting — for Canadian visitors.

One key cultural difference between Canadians and Americans is their approach to patriotism. In my opinion, Canadians are quietly proud of their country, while Americans seem to be more forthright. One area where this comes into play is the use of slogans such “made with pride in the USA”. (We note this is a different message from “manufactured in the United States”, which implies higher quality than off-shore manufacturing.)

Unless you know that for a fact that this is something your international customers value -– as opposed to being a potential point of sensitivity — such slogans might best be treated with caution, especially when dealing with public sector customers.

We suggest adopting a neutral tone. A subtle approach is to restrict information about U.S. value-add, GI bills, segregated housing, trade unions, and the such on a corporate page in your U.S. site.

Good intentions aside, we suggest that you don’t produce a Canadian version of your web site unless you truly have a positive business case, management commitment and resources — financial, technical and marketing — to develop and maintain a high-quality web site.

Ask yourself if one site that supports basic international business processes for Canadian customers may be better than two distinct sites, especially if there is a risk that the Canadian version will be poorly maintained and slow to add new features.

About Market Metrics

Market Metrics Inc. helps knowledge-based businesses with strategy, planning and innovation. We offer our clients a unique combination of top-shelf professional skills, competitive pricing, and real-world industry experience in business planning, marketing, and technology.

The consultancy was founded in 2003 by Greg Graham, a seasoned strategic marketing professional. Greg is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), a Fellow of the Ontario Institute of Management Consultants (FCMC), and an Accredited Small Business Consultant (ASMEC) in the United States. He holds MBA/BEE degrees plus a Certificate in Strategic Management.

Prior to founding Market Metrics, Greg's 21 years of corporate experience encompassed tech start-ups through Fortune 500 companies. He is an expert in subscription-based business models (including SaaS). Greg frequently performs consulting engagements on behalf of the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP).