Canadian market tips for U.S. e-commerce sites, part 1

January 14, 2011 — In today’s connected world, your customers may not come from your home town, state, or even country. If you operate a U.S.-based e-commerce web site, an easy way to expand your potential market by an extra 30 million people is to make sure that your web site works as well for your Canadian customers as it does for your domestic customers.

Whether your existing web site offers products, services, or content or services, here are some pragmatic suggestions on how you can quickly audit your web site for its “Canadian-friendliness quotient”, and some low- or even no-cost fixes — without developing a separate web site just for Canadians. We bet you won’t find a less-expensive international marketing program anywhere!

1.  How important is the Canadian market to your web site?

Look at your web analytics to see how many hits there are from Canadian visitors and how many of these hits convert to sales. If you have a goodly portion of Canadian visitors and customers, it makes sense to cater to them.

If your site has disproportionately more visitors than customers, it could be an indication that there are challenges that need to be addressed. Of course, there may be a fundamental business issue that makes your e-commerce offer unattractive in Canada — such as high shipping costs or a strong Canadian competitor.

2.  Identify & rank your target national markets

One of my pet peeves are pull-down menus that list Canada alphabetically after Cameroon. If you want Canada to be one of your target markets, why give it the same prominence as countries like Liechtenstein and Zimbabwe? (I’m betting that you don’t get much — or any — business from these two countries). Rank your top national markets, list them in that order, and then put the rest of the world in alphabetical order. For many web sites the United States will be first on your country pick list, and Canada second.

3.  Does your phone ring when dialled from Canada?

If your company has a 1-800 number, chances are pretty good that it doesn’t work from Canada. Ask a friend in Canada to call you as a test (we’ll help you with this if you don’t know any Canadians). Either extend the coverage to include Canada, or list a regular number that can be dialled from anywhere. No telephone contact number implies limited customer service or technical support, and can lose you sales if international customers need assistance to order.

4.  Pretend you live in Toronto… can you enter your address?

Or Montreal or Calgary or Vancouver. Now try using your company’s web site. Does it have a list of provinces? A quick tip-off to shoppers that the site might not accept Canadian orders is a field labelled “State” instead of “State/Province”. Does pressing “O” offer Ontario, or just Ohio?

Does your web site reject Canadian postal codes? Automatic verification of zip codes is a terrific idea to prevent data entry errors, but maybe not so great if the software rejects alphanumeric postal codes. You can test your site using the Market Metrics postal code, “K2K 2P4”.

4. Can your site process international payments?

Here’s an example where someone clearly wasn’t thinking past the border. I frequently get time-limited offers via email from a company whose web site I have registered on. I really like their products, and would buy them on-line. Too bad their on-line credit card authorization doesn’t work with Canadian credit cards!

I’ve also encountered U.S. sites that can only validate Canadian credit cards during business hours, which means people can’t place orders during the evening, prime on-line shopping hours. Having customers abandon their shopping carts because the payment processing didn’t work is a sale that was made — and then lost.

5. Learn how to ship across the border

If you sell products, your Canadian customers will need shipping and customs brokerage. First, check with your existing shippers for these services.

Next, check that your web site can accommodate any special procedures involved. Some items, like food and drugs, have legal restrictions. You have the choice of either implementing any required procedures or at least notifying the shopper that a product they have selected cannot be exported. The Canadian Border Services Agency ( is a good resource for information on moving goods across the U.S./Canadian border.

Don’t forget that there will be a delay getting goods across the border. If you promise overnight delivery, you probably won’t make it overnight to a Canadian destination. That’s usually acceptable; just let customers know in advance that it will take longer.

Best of all is a checkout system that recognizes where the package is going, and offers a selection of shipping options. Some web sites offer different delivery times and price points as well as optional insurance.

Remember that customers will be looking at the all-in price, meaning the total delivered cost including shipping and currency conversion charges. Maybe a Christmas present bought on sale in July and shipped by surface mail is an attractive offer, but becomes too expensive if the only delivery option is via courier.

These five tips won’t give you a localized Canadian web site, but can significantly improve your web site by enabling it to accept, bill, fulfill, and support international orders. We’ll look at web site localization in a future posting.

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).


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