Canadian online shoppers tell us today what will be important to them, tomorrow

6 minute read

Everything has changed – and shoppers are saying that they are no different.

Canada Post surveyed more than 5,000 Canadian shoppers who made online purchases in the last year in order to better understand their attitudes, preferences and expectations. As part of that survey, Canadians answered questions on how their paths to purchase have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are some of their answers – expressed in their own words. We go deeper than the survey’s numbers by getting to the heart of recent changes in Canadian shoppers’ habits and behaviour to reveal how they plan to shop now and in the future.

In part two of this series, we will explore the changes your business can make to thrive by better meeting customers’ future expectations in the evolving retail landscape.

How Canadian online shoppers plan to return to stores

We’ve all been thinking about the future of in-store shopping. Here’s what customers see on the horizon.

What they said

“I’ll continue to shop online, but will also return to stores to feel, observe and try on products in person. Shopping is a leisure activity I shared with my mom. It’s our bonding time, and this experience can never be replicated online.”

“I miss going to the mall to browse and try stuff on. I will go back to doing that. Hopefully that will curb my impulse online-buying habits. I find I am buying a lot of stuff online then returning it. This is not healthy and needs to stop.”

“All the sensory pleasures of shopping have been removed in the online experience. I was always an online shopper, but as a more functional form of shopping – necessities, things I knew would fit, something not offered in the average store. Now that I have to do all my shopping online, the joy has been removed.”

What you should hear

Keep in mind that in-person shopping did not disappear completely. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of Canadians made an in-person purchase in 2020.1 But when shoppers return to stores in person in full force – and they will – they will be less about aimless browsing and more about accessing tactile details taken away by online shopping. They miss the showroom aspect of the experience where they can smell that candle, touch that fabric, try on that jacket. The pandemic stripped something away from them. Beyond buying, shoppers missed the experience of shopping, so their return will be viewed by them as a getaway from everyday life and a time to be with others.

Dive deeper into the changing behaviours of Canadian consumers.

Get more insights

The lasting impact of the pandemic on Canadian retail

To begin understanding the long-term impact of the pandemic, we have to start with how shoppers will evolve.

What they said

“I used to enjoy going to the malls during the Christmas season, or spending time with friends shopping on a Saturday (retail therapy, we’d call it), but I don’t realistically ever see that happening again. Something has changed. It’s a shift that is palpable and unnerving.”

“My new normal when shopping is this multi-step process. Step 1: Determine whether the item is really necessary or whether it can be homemade, substituted with something else or omitted altogether. Step 2: Find the item online for the best price and with free shipping/reasonable shipping costs. Step 3: If unavailable online, try to find locally with curbside pickup of the item. Step 4: If curbside pickup is not available, then I mask up, cover up and physically go to the store.”

“With online shopping, the anxiety of choosing the right things that don’t have to be returned is at times overwhelming. I take longer to make decisions on my purchases and often load up a shopping cart only to abandon it because I’m unsure of what/how I feel about what I’ve put in it.”

What you should hear

Not all Canadian shoppers are in the same place. Despite the excitement among some online shoppers to return to stores immediately, a significant amount of hesitancy and anxiety among shoppers will remain for years to come. They are going to look to everyone from health officials to retailers to provide them assurances about a safe re-entry into society and shopping.

No matter the mindset, however, shoppers will be looking for online experiences that remind them of a time when they enjoyed shopping in store. All those feelings will apply more and more pressure on retailers to deliver a connected customer experience. That means offering the same level of service and opportunity across channels as shoppers look to balance their time online and off.

The expanded role of online shopping and the digital experience

Out of necessity, the role of online shopping and digital channels has grown exponentially since the onset of the pandemic. Going forward, understanding how Canadians view online shopping will be critical.

What they said

“I will continue to do initial searches online to find what I need. Then, I will go to the retailer and see, try and feel in person.”

“I will probably go back to shopping in person where possible but browsing the online stores first may be a thing I do that I didn’t do before.”

“I don’t think I will really go back to shopping in stores. I like shopping online. Much easier to see all the selections and to make decisions in a less stressful environment.”

What you should hear

Initially aided by technology, then accelerated by a global pandemic, Canadian consumers show no signs of slowing down their online buying habits. In fact, they plan to buy the same amount or even more online next year.2

But beyond that, digital channels will take on expanded responsibilities – as shoppers turn to them for more than click-and-forget purchases. Increasingly, shoppers depend on digital to conduct research (e.g. product quality, price comparisons, in-store availability, etc.) in advance of both online and in-store purchases. They appreciate this ability to consider selections in a controlled environment where they can move at their own pace.

Support for small, independent and local businesses

As the pandemic impacted retailers of all sizes, shoppers supported small, local and independent businesses.

What they said

“While I do intend to return to a life of aimlessly browsing from time to time, I do see myself still relying heavily on online shopping. I also will try to continue to support independent creators and small/local businesses as much as possible.”

“I will continue shopping online and really be mindful of what I am buying. In the past, I did more impulse buying online and would return in-person if needed. I will continue trying to purchase from local stores as much as possible. I will continue doing curbside pickup to avoid shipping fees, or only getting items delivered from stores that have free shipping.”

What you should hear

Canadian shoppers will continue to seek comfort in larger, well-known retailers, but are increasingly willing to diversify through their exploration of smaller, independent brands or by seeking out Canadian-based retailers first. More than half say they’re sticking to the well-known retailers,3 while 1-in-3 shoppers are also visiting a greater number of online retailers.4 Be mindful. With so many options in front of them, shoppers may not remain loyal to a particular retailer. They will likely continue to set high (occasionally unreasonable) expectations for their attention and dollars.

Greater expectations from brands

Online shoppers are looking for brands that align with their values, but it remains to be seen if these heightened expectations will last.

What they said

“I will still price-shop online using apps like Flipp. However, if I’m near the store, I will just go and buy whatever I need instead of ordering and contributing to the environmental waste we’re all creating with shipping boxes, etc.”

“My new normal is buying the essentials. Shopping is no longer a pastime that I would do just to look at what is new in the stores. I saved a lot of money by shopping this way and like having more money and less stuff.”

What you should hear

After over a year of waves upon waves of boxes arriving at their doorsteps, shoppers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of their online shopping. For example, nearly two-thirds of online shoppers are upset when retailers use excessive or unnecessary packaging when shipping purchases.5 Increasingly, those shoppers will reward retailers who reduce packaging and optimize shipping.

Talk to customers to understand them and earn their loyalty

The best way to understand someone is to talk to them and listen to what they have to say. For businesses, understanding shoppers’ views and behaviour as we emerge from this period of time is paramount for success.

In addition to Canada Post insights, obtained directly from consumers, your brand can benefit from engaging in its own smaller-scale conversations. Do polls. Talk to your customers. Engage on social media. Talk to retail salespeople who are talking to customers. Look at online data to see what pages are popular on your ecommerce site. Monitor your COVID-19 information and protocols page.

What consumers say might surprise you and, when combined with raw numbers, offer you a clear path to success. Shoppers are willing to tell you a lot about who they are, what they want and who they will become – as long as you’re willing to listen.

1 2 3 4 5 Canada Post. 2021 Canadian Online Shopper Study, April 2021.

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