MIA PEARSON

Social media plays growing role in online retailing

Special to The Globe and Mail

Shop.ca company offices in Toronto May 3, 2012. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

After an initial start several years ago, online retailing in Canada struggled to make its mark.

Major Canadian retailer Hudson’s Bay Co. opened online shopping, only to shut it down in 2009. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. jumped on the bandwagon only last year, and major U.S. retailers have been only slowly increasing access for Canadians to their online stores.

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Over the past year or so, however, Canadian companies have been increasingly getting back into online retailing. HBC has reignited its efforts and Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. is slowly entering the e-commerce landscape by offering an online shopping site for its high-end Murale beauty chain.

As well, new companies are emerging to offer Canadians an array of products and compete with dominant U.S.-owned sites such as Amazon.ca.

Shop.ca is hoping to make a big splash by giving traditional retailers a place online to sell their wares, and leveraging social media to drive awareness and consumer engagement.

Small businesses are realizing the potential to expand sales across the country by leveraging online strategies while downsizing stores and a focus on bricks and mortar.

A big part of this resurgence can be tied to social media, which is offering brands a new way to directly engage with consumers and drive more traffic to their e-commerce sites.

From Facebook to Twitter to Pinterest, sites have helped engagement with brands increase exponentially, and made consumers more invested in what they have to offer.

Many companies, especially startups, no longer consider social media and e-commerce as separate strategies, but instead are looking to social networks such as Facebook that offer a combination of data, analytics and payment technology to help open doors to a new era of online retailing.

A recent study commissioned by Campalyst dug deep into the social media habits of the leading online retailers in the United States. Some interesting trends have come to light.

Facebook leads with retail companies, with 97 per cent of the top 250 Internet retailers in the United States on the site. They also have a huge presence on Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest, and are growing in both followers and engagement.

The bottom line: The world’s largest retail brands are spending a lot of time and money on building their social networks as a key component of their overall e-commerce strategy.

For small businesses, the opportunity may be even more significant. With growing technological advancements in the e-commerce industry, it has never been easier or more accessible for small- and medium-sized businesses to create a site and leverage social media to build a customer base.

Canadian-based Well.ca focuses solely on offering consumers retail products through e-commerce, and its growing success is due in part to keeping down operating costs and focusing on online purchasing and distribution. Small and mid-sized businesses can be nimbler and, at times, lead innovation.

Social media is no longer a channel within the marketing mix. If used to its full potential, it should be an essential part of a company’s business plan and, for retailers in particular, a fully integrated part of an overall online sales strategy.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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