Saturday, March 13, 2010

Retail in Canada

I sometimes like to think that it's not so much that Canada has a lousier retail environment than the United States; it's that the US has the best in the world, and Canada is not as good but is better than the rest - with the scale continuing to western Europe, eastern Europe, and so on.

But that doesn't change the fact that choices are better in the States; prices can be far better; and the customer interface (shops, web sites, sales reps and customer support) are more enjoyable to work with and more efficient.

Case in point: I need a new ceiling fan. After checking some local stores and not finding what I wanted I looked online and found two models I liked. I called some lighting stores in town and only one had the sort of thing I was looking for. I went to the store and found they couldn't get my first choice but they could get my second, this one from Fanimation:

The price they quoted was $2400 plus tax.

In an online store in the US, the exact same fan was $1143 ($681 for the fan and $462 for the curvey blades; no tax). There's a $55 shipping charge to Canada and 11% import duty (which is handled by the courier so the fan is delivered to your door), but the dollars are nearly at parity, so the total cost is still nearly half of the store's price.

You might say that's a typical store mark-up, but they don't stock any ceiling fans: they were going to order it from a catalog.

Plus, the price differential isn't even the biggest problem. The lighting store chain's web site is uninformative (it has a lot of pages but no details of the products; the only real info is the address). They don't have any fans on display (just catalogs), yet they only carry parts of three lines of fan - and this was the only fan that was different from your typical Home Depot selection. The staff seemed uninterested verging on surly. I had to stand at a cluttered counter to look at the catalogs. The staff couldn't answer any questions about the products and didn't even give me an exact price (the guy said it would be "around $2400").

In contrast, the US online store had both an 800 number and an online chat service (both of which I used to ask questions about the fans). The guy at the store said it would take six weeks to get the fan, while the customer rep at the US web site said 7-10 days. The US outfit has a tracking page where I can follow my order. At the local store, I have to go to the store to pick up the fan.

I didn't order that fan. I bought my first choice, which was much cheaper, is about the most efficient (in terms of moving the most air) and quietest fan on the market, and has a Calderesque look I like:

My fan is in the Minka Aire line, which doesn't even have a distributor in Canada. In my town, if you want an artistic ceiling fan - with the exception of waiting six weeks for that $2400 one - you don't have much choice but to import directly from elsewhere.

Is Canadian taste so stodgy that there's no point carrying Minka Aire fans? (The guy in the store said, "I think I've heard other people asking about Minka.") If markets are so efficient, why isn't Canadian retail improving to match the US?

Canada is a great untapped retail market, yet sometimes it seems that US retailers lower their quality when they sell here. For example, a couple of years ago Target (US) and Zellers (Canada) sold the same brand of clothing, but at Target the clothes were well-designed, well-made and 100% cotton, while at Zellers the clothes tended to be chintzy and synthetic. I find it hard to believe that Canadians prefer ugly clothes. A big part of the success of Walmart is that they carry simple, cheap, well-made cotton clothing - even in Canada.

For a short while I ordered books from Indigo rather than Amazon - the Amazon search engine is so much better that I would have to look up the book on Amazon, get the ISBN and then use that to find it on Indigo. I gave up and now order everything from Amazon. Heck, I was at the Information Desk at the library once and the librarian used Amazon to find information about a book. Why exactly is it a scandal that our government might let Amazon expand here?

Is the real problem that Canadians are willing to put up with lousy selection, quality, service and prices, while Americans demand better?



Michael D said...

I think it's mostly that Canada is a much smaller market and it is expensive and/or difficult to deal with cross-border issues. The USPS is also amazing. But don't underestimate the importance of having a market ten times bigger and the competition that large players like Amazon can bring.

(Oh, how I wish were available here with its low prices, awesome selection, and fast and free shipping....)

Cat A. said...

was just told by my local glass lighting store in Barrie that Minka is illegal in Canada. Not sure why though.