According to MasterCard Advisors, monthly Canadian e-commerce sales have grown on a year-over-year basis for 55 consecutive months, but the trend began losing steam earlier this year.
A streak of more than 15 months of year-over-year growth exceeding 20 per cent was broken in the spring when online sales in Canada began slumping, said Sarah Quinlan, a senior vice president with MasterCard Advisors.
There are economic factors at play that slowed down online shopping in Canada but a nagging detriment to the e-commerce market is a relative lack of options consumers have at their disposal, especially in comparison to what's available in the U.S., U.K., and European countries.
While many of Canada's biggest retailers host robust e-commerce platforms, there are some glaring omissions.
When Target made its big launch into Canada in March it didn't include an online store and the U.S. retailer has given no indication when it may enable online shopping. Canadian Tire only sells tires online and although it plans to enact a wider e-commerce strategy next year, it will focus on letting consumers ship purchases to their nearest store, not to their home.
"One of the biggest challenges right now is there aren't as many (e-commerce) options," said Quinlan, who noted that consumers aren't blind to the fact that there are often better deals and more selection available if they do some cross-border online shopping, even after factoring in the exchange rate, duties and shipping.
Canadian shoppers who visit the websites of U.S. retailers including J.C. Penney, Macy's and Nordstrom are greeted by pop-up windows that promise an easy transaction with all the extra fees tallied at check out and no surprise costs.
"It's very critical to give respect to the consumer, the consumer is extremely aware. You can see it in the overall volatility of total retail sales ... you can absolutely see the consumer is very sensitive to any change in overall policy that might affect their purchasing power or their wallet," said Quinlan.
In September, Google commissioned Ipsos to conduct an online poll to gauge consumer intentions heading into the holiday season. Consumers estimated they would do about 18 per cent of their holiday shopping with Canadian online stores and four per cent with American e-tailers. Those figures barely budged up from last year's numbers, acknowledged Google Canada's head of industry and retail Rafe Petkovic.
According to another Ipsos poll, a global survey commissioned by coupon site RetailMeNot.ca, 27 per cent of Canadians said they wouldn't do any online shopping this holiday season, which was third highest among the 11 countries surveyed. Just 10 per cent of Canadians said they'd do the majority of their holiday shopping online, compared to 44 per cent of the Brits surveyed, 40 per cent of Chinese respondents and 33 per cent of German shoppers.
Compared to G8 nations and other similarly sized markets, Canada is just about last when it comes to e-commerce sales and sophistication, Petkovic said.
"The closest equivalent is Australia and they're still two to three years ahead of where Canada is in terms of the level of investment behind technology and infrastructure and capabilities," he said.
"We know Canadian consumers are a highly engaged online audience, where we fall behind is when it comes to e-commerce as a proportion of total retail sales relative to those other G8 markets.... Certainly when it comes to e-commerce as a proportion of retail sales, (Canada) is down at the bottom there."
While Canadians aren't shopping online as much, we are increasingly leaning heavily on the Internet to inform purchasing decisions, Petkovic added.
"Digital is not just about e-commerce, it's about influencing consumers and driving them into your store," he said.
"While e-commerce sales may not be that great in this market we're certainly seeing mobile influence in-store purchasing."
Seventy-six per cent of the consumers polled in the Google survey said they would use the web to help them decide which stores to shop at this holiday season and the brands of products to purchase.
About half said they'd use their mobile phone as a shopping tool. Tellingly, almost 80 per cent of those consumers who commonly use their phone while shopping said they've left a store without making a purchase because of information they found on their mobile device.
"Everyone's walking around with mobile phones, super-computers, in their pockets ... people's path to purchase has forever changed," Petkovic said.