As the e-commerce marketing lead at Google Canada, I heard a lot of companies talking about “when things get back to normal” in March. Today, not so much. Businesses now recognize that many consumer shopping habits are never going back to the way things were pre-COVID, and research confirms it. A recent IPSOS survey revealed that 33% of Canadians expect to shop more online even once the pandemic subsides. On top of that, 82% of Canadians first go online to find and research the things they want, and 89% choose retailers based on a great digital experience.

In other words, if you’re not online, you won’t be seen. 

This lesson was observed first-hand when the pandemic hit. For the brick-and-mortar retailers who already had strong online channels, the retail shift was a fairly easy transition. For those with inefficient online stores, sales went soft. But for those who weren't online, sales literally stopped overnight. 

That’s scary news if you’re one of the 83% of Canadian small- and medium-sized retail businesses that still aren’t selling online. But this shift actually represents huge opportunities for your company and a strategic path forward to not only survive today’s turbulent marketplace, but to thrive beyond it. At Google, we’ve seen the companies that are doing e-commerce well are actually growing their sales right now, and finding new customers all over the world. 

A row of brightly coloured shopping cards sits next to a river.

Best of all, it’s probably easier than you think to get started. In partnership with Shopify and others, we’ve created a
ShopHERE digital starter kit that contains tons of information, tools and tips. It’s part of a program to help 50,000 small, independent Canadian companies move from offline to online by the end of 2020. In this blog, I’ll show you how even a few small steps can increase your company’s online visibility. I’ve linked all the resources at the bottom of the page, so they’re easy for you to find.

There’s never been a better time to get online

While a digital presence can help your company weather these turbulent times, there are other silver linings as well. Google research shows Canadian search interest in “how to help small businesses” skyrocketed in March, demonstrating that Canadians want to support local companies. 

Moreover, Canadians are also very open to trying new items, brands and retailers at this time, which represents growth opportunities for you to win new customers and get new business.  

Plus, your digital strategy can work with and complement your physical retail space. Google’s COVID-19 Retail Guide details three key ways consumer behaviour has changed during the pandemic, and how you can adapt your business to meet these needs. An important tip, even if you don’t plan to sell online, is to give your customers online access to clear, specific information about where, how, and when they can buy from you, including options such as delivery or curbside pickup. There was recently 100% growth for “curbside pickup” searches, and more than 60% searched for “what’s open near me.” 

And unlike times past, you don’t need to be tech-savvy or a marketing guru, or have these skills on-staff. There’s so much free or low-cost help today that it’s truly never been easier.

Omnichannel thinking: The new e-commerce and beyond

It’s important to understand that e-commerce today has evolved into what’s called omnichannel marketing. It’s not about simply putting up a website, but creating a whole customer experience through multiple points of contact, including your bricks-and-mortar store. You can almost think of it as providing an e-commerce channel, but with a “local, general store” feel.

My son needed a new bike, and with COVID-19, it wasn’t going to be easy to shop for one. So I started off by Googling “bike stores near me.” Then I called a store that looked promising, gave the retail clerk my son's age and size, and she directed me to their inventory site. I consulted with her as we looked over the bikes and chose one for him, together. I paid online. And then, later that afternoon, they dropped the bike off in my backyard. You can see how all those little intersections, between online and real-life, worked together to give me an amazing shopping experience.

Free tools to start building an omnichannel experience

I’m not going to tell you how to set up an online store, because Tariq from Shopify covers this in Selling online has never been easier…or more necessary, the second blog of this series. Instead, I’m going to tell you how you can use some of our other free Google tools and resources to get online and better understand and attract new customers. 

And if you already have a site, Google has free diagnostics tools and industry benchmarks that can quickly help you test your mobile site speed and evaluate the effectiveness of your retail website.

Get started with the ShopHERE Digital Starter Kit

As I mentioned, we’ve partnered with Digital Main Street to create ShopHERE, a program aiming to get 50,000 small, independent Canadian businesses and artists online. 

As part of that, we've put together a Digital Starter Kit that’s free for everyone to download. Inside, you’ll find a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to help you get your business online or improve what you’ve already built. 

Through the many links, resources and tips provided, you’ll find ways to learn about:

  • your customers; 
  • set up and market your website;
  • achieve search engine optimization; 
  • reach new customers through Google Ads
  • build your company brand through storytelling; 
  • connect with your customers through email; and 
  • free marketing templates. The kit also features a link to a Google Primer, a fast way to learn new digital marketing skills.  

A tool that you’ll want to register for right away is a free Google My Business Account. Appearing on Google Search and Google Maps is essential to helping customers find your company, as well as a great way for customers to view your key information. If someone searches for something like “Italian restaurants near me”–up pops a store with details like store hours or whether they have takeout. This can be a first step towards your digital storefront. You’ll find easy instructions to set up your Google My Business Account profile.

Find out what your customers want with Google Trends

People visit 1.5 billion website destinations every month through their Google searches, and knowing the top search topics can help you adapt your business accordingly. No budget for consumer research? No problem. You can access Google Trends for free. In almost real time, it lets you follow search trends across Google Search, YouTube, Shopping, and Images, and identifies the growth in interest in products and search terms.

For example, when the pandemic began, there was a run on searches for things like toilet paper, wipes, homeschooling, contactless shopping, and home improvement projects. When people first started working from home, searches for office chairs spiked more than 100%. A month later, hair clippers skyrocketed 800%. But less predictably, there was a huge interest in vintage hobbies, like rollerblades, skateboards, puzzles and board games. 

Having this insight at your fingertips can help you come up with fresh and fun ideas to expand your business and give your customers what they want. If you’re making gift baskets, for example, you might want to add a deck of cards and travel-size games. Google Trends tracks both Canadian and global search interest, and you can also view the data over different time periods.

Another free tool for business insight is Google Alerts. If there’s a product, an industry, or a company you want to follow (including your own!), Google Alerts will send you an email every day consolidating all of the news releases for that subject. 

Driving traffic to your site

Once you get your e-commerce site set up, you need to help customers find their way to you. One key is search engine optimization, the skill to create a site that’s easily discovered by Google and other search engines. 

Another great way to drive traffic to your site is through Google Ads. These ads can appear on Google at the very moment someone is searching for the products or services you offer. You can start at any budget and you only pay when someone takes action by clicking through to your site. You can browse through the free Google My Business Marketing Kit for lots of other ideas.

These are just some of the digital resources and insights available to Canadian small businesses right now. I hope they help you see the exciting opportunities and business growth available, from selling locally to internationally, through e-commerce. While strong winds cause turbulence, they’re also the catalyst to set a new course and set your sites on promising shores.

Get these free downloads from Google!