As they begin their global expansion, American companies often select Canada first under the assumption that the market will be easier to succeed in than more distant and culturally unfamiliar markets such as Germany or Japan.
However, physical and cultural proximity should not be confused with ease of market entry or ease of website localization. Every country is a new market with unique cultures, laws, and ways of doing business. This article highlights a few key tips to consider as you head to the “great white north.”
Think Beyond Stereotypes
To many Americans, the stereotypical Canadian loves hockey, beer, and ice fishing. And while many Canadians proudly fit the stereotype, Canada is an amazingly diverse country.
In fact, Canada has the highest immigration rate among developed countries. According to Statistics Canada, Canada has a higher percentage of foreign-born population (20.6%) than the United States (13%). More than half of the immigrants who arrived over the past six years came from Asia.
Canada is home to roughly half a million native Chinese speakers, most of who live in the Vancouver metropolitan area. German, Punjab, and Spanish speakers are also significant populations. Nearly five million Canadians speak a language other than French or English.
Getting goods across the border can sometimes take quite a lot longer than expected. Canada has specific labeling requirements for products (such as including French-language instructions), and there are many other restrictions that can easily delay a shipment. And these delays and modifications tend to be reflected in higher prices, which alone may be a competitive obstacle as you enter the market.
Furthermore, Canada is a vast country. Canada is home to just 34 million people, which is a smaller population than the state of California. Geographically, however, Canada is larger than the United States. You have to figure distance and delivery costs into your fulfillment models. Zappos.com abandoned its Canada website in 2011, citing “unpredictability of delivering orders” and “logistical constraints.”
This shouldn’t dissuade you from targeting Canada, but you might also consider relying on service providers that can manage logistics for you.
Support French (Canadian)
Canada has two official languages: English and French. And if your business has a local presence in the province of Quebec, you are required by law to support French, not only within the store but on your website.
French is spoken by roughly 7 million Canadians, of which 90% live in the province of Quebec. French Canadian is distinct from the French used in France, so don’t make the mistake of using one language for both countries — you’ll offend at least one population.
Make French Discoverable
If you do localize for French speakers, make sure that they can easily find the localized content. First, you should include a link in the header of every web page. Shown here is an example from Best Buy Canada:
A number of websites will display interstitials to first-time visitors to make the websites even more discoverable. Shown here is what visitors to Molsoncanadian.ca see:
Companies such as Best Buy, TripAdvisor, Sears, and Amazon all use the .ca country code as their “front door” in Canada. Using .ca sends a clear message to users that your website is intended solely for that country.
Country codes are particularly important for ecommerce, as users want to be sure they’re ordering in the right currency. And the country code generally improves your search engine performance when users within Canada search for your products or services.
What if You Aren’t Based In Canada?
Consider how Nordstrom currently manages its customers north of the border. It uses geolocation to detect if a user is based in Canada and displays this message to let users know that it does indeed ship to Canada. This is a great way to manage expectations.
Nordstrom is now in the early stages of launching physical stores within Canada. It now hosts a website at Nordstrom.ca and displays this message:
So you might follow an approach similar to Nordstrom. You first leverage third-party services to help get your goods into the market, and then, as your customer base builds, you invest more fully in the country.
Similar But Different
For Americans looking at Canada, it’s easy to see many similarities, but these similarities can have subtle but critical differences. For example, it is true that Canadians, like Americans, celebrate Thanksgiving every year. But be aware that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. Even shared holidays can have distinct differences.
As you expand your ecommerce operations globally, take the time and spend the resources to do it well. Study the best localization practices and work with experienced partners, even for countries that are as seemingly familiar as Canada.