How to Rack Up Holiday Sales

Holiday shopping isn't what it used to be. Google Canada's insights into what Canadian consumers are looking for—and how you can capitalize

Written by Deborah Aarts

The busiest season of the year for retailers is in full swing, but holiday shopping is not what it used to be. Thanks to technology, the demands and expectations of consumers have changed dramatically. This holds great promise for retailers, but it also puts those who aren’t on top of the trends at the risk of being left behind.

As is often the case, your best offense is knowledge. PROFIT spoke with Alexandra Cohn, the principal analyst responsible for Google Canada’s 2013 Holiday Consumer Intentions Survey, about what consumers are looking for, the role of technology in the shopping experience and why you can no longer afford to ignore Black Friday.

PROFIT: How would you characterize the intent of consumers this holiday season?

Cohn: Canadian consumers are entering the season being very cautious in terms of anticipated spend. Many—over half of all those we interviewed this year—are sticking to budgets. So, that means they’re looking for value. And that’s where we see online research really playing a massive role in shopping this holiday season. Online research offers consumers the transparency to pursue value and to give them the opportunity to stick to their budgets, without investing the time or gas money to go out to a store without knowing necessarily that they’ll find what they’re looking for.

PROFIT: Your survey suggests that 91% of consumers are researching purchases ahead of time—and that online is by far their preferred channel of doing so. Can you give a window into their search behaviour?

By October, one-third of all Canadians have already started researching and planning holiday purchases.

Cohn: For one thing, they’re starting early. By October, one-third of all Canadians have already started researching and planning holiday purchases, and 50% of consumers will actually spend a month doing so. But we do see a lag between that early research and that later purchase; most purchasing still happens in late November and early December. Second, consumers are looking for value and incentives. Retailers that can meet those consumers at the moments that matter will really do well this holiday season.

Read: Holiday Shopping Will Start Early This Year

PROFIT: And that’s the million-dollar question. How can retailers capture that curiousity of this research-heavy consumer?

Cohn: First and foremost, it’s about discoverability. When consumers are actively looking for you online, it’s in effect the equivalent of them sitting at home calling your store. If you don’t have a strong online presence, if the consumer can’t find you when they’re looking explicitly for products—or even more generally for inspiration—they’re not likely to seriously consider you.

Retailers have to have that presence ready when the consumer starts shopping. If the consumer begins research in October, you should have your holiday marketing online in September. Be there to be found by the consumer.

PROFIT: It’s now the middle of November. What advice do you have for those retailers that didn’t get a head-start preparing for holiday shoppers? Is it too late?

Cohn: It’s never too late. There are a lot of things retailers can be doing, particularly from an online perspective. Yes, Canadians watch TV and look at flyers; they look for inspiration and discovery across a multitude of media. But we know that once they do discover a product and are interested, they go back online to find out more about that product. So, if you’re marketing in other media, it’s important to have that same consistent message be brought to your online presence.

Another way retailers can really take advantage quickly is by using online video. That sight, that sound, that magic that a lot of us expect and want from the holidays can be delivered via video pretty quickly and easily.

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PROFIT: We’ve heard a lot about how of mobile technology is transforming retail; how do you expect that to play out this year?

Half of all smartphone users plan to use them for shopping this holiday season.

Cohn: Mobile is a huge game-changer this holiday season. Half of all smartphone users plan to use them for shopping this holiday season. And they’re really using these devices across the whole purchase process, for everything from comparing prices to reading reviews. Some people plan to use their phones to search stores’ inventory and product features. Consumers are time-strapped. So the trend towards mobile usage we’ve been seeing creep up in retail for everyday shopping is just going to become more exaggerated for holiday buying.

How does that translate? Our research shows that one-third of consumers will download a shopping app—we define that as anything from a price-scanning app to an individual store’s shopping app—to help them with their purchasing. And 43% will use some type of GPS or location-based apps.

Read: Flipboard Vies For A Piece of the Holiday Shopping Pie

PROFIT: Your study found that this year Canadians have been making 44% more web searches related to Black Friday and Cyber Monday—traditionally a U.S. phenomenon—compared to last. Presumably, interest will only increase as these two dates near. What can Canadian retailers do to take advantage of this interest?

Cohn: First, retailers need to understand that this is now a Canadian event as well as a U.S. event. Last year was the first year we saw retailers participating at any major scale. That’s continuing this year.

Canadian consumer expectations around these days are quite high. They expect serious deals. And 63% believe that Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are better than the U.S. Canadian retailers need to understand these high consumer demands if they want to be able to meet them.

PROFIT: What’s your final advice to retailers looking to get the most out of holiday shoppers?

It’s critical for retailers today to understand the path to purchase and the mindset of the Canadian consumer, which changes rapidly. And it’s critical to understand the interplay between all the different shopping media. Focusing on any one channel is great, but if you can be seamless across multiple channels—in terms of sales and advertising—it’ll create a greater experience for the consumer, which will make them more likely to reward you with their business.

Read: Santa’s 5 Best Business Lessons

How do you plan to attract customers this holiday season? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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