Mailman turned salesman

Canada Post’s new online shopping service has left some private sector competitors reeling

There was a time when shopping at the post office amounted to choosing between a stamp featuring a native flower, the national flag, or some other patriotic and decidedly non-commercial emblem: the white-tailed deer, Oscar Peterson, or “masterpieces of Canadian art.”

Now, Canada Post, a Crown corporation, is fast becoming the country’s leading online retailer—hawking everything from sweaters, shoes and treadmills to coffee machines, cologne and computers. Last month, in an effort to boost its parcel shipping business (as letter mail sales continue to plummet), the company unveiled the Canada Post Comparison Shopper website, which allows consumers to find, rank and buy their choice of five million products from 500 North American retailers, including Canadian Tire and Sears. Since then, 30,000 Canadians have taken to scrolling through the offerings every day—making it the most visited comparison shopping website in the country, almost instantly.

Canada Post says that promoting online shopping makes sense given that 65 per cent of its business is done over the Internet already. In the last four years, letter mail sales have dropped 11.4 per cent, says Anick Losier, a Canada Post spokesperson, and “each percentage point decline means $30 million in declined revenue,” she explains. “We need to find ways to diversify the business [so] it’s not just snail mail.” With 6,500 Canada Post outlets spread across the country, and a 91 per cent stake in the courier Purolator, the company is perfectly positioned to deliver goods to Canadians no matter how far they live from the nearest Ikea or Gap.

But what’s good for Canada Post and its consumers may not be so good for the entrepreneurs who run their own comparison shopping websites. Some feel as though their retail space has been raided by a government-owned behemoth. “It doesn’t really seem like a place for the mail carrier to be—certainly a subsidized mail carrier,” says Scott Sanderson, co-founder of the website Shop To It. Comparison shopping websites are, after all, largely advertising entities—partnering with retailers to market to consumers, he says. Sanderson also takes issue with Canada Post endorsing American retailers rather than focusing solely on Canadian companies. “It seems interesting that if I was a Canadian retailer and paying taxes into the Canadian government that it would then use those proceeds to foster an American market,” Sanderson says. “I think it’s a confusing message.”

Other entrepreneurs, however, are hoping that Canada Post’s retail website will be a boon for the country’s underdeveloped online shopping segment—last year 39 per cent of Canadians made Internet purchases, spending $15.1 billion. Derek Szeto, founder of the website Red Flag Deals, is optimistic that the Crown corporation’s high profile will bring more awareness among Canadians about what is available for purchase over the Internet. “A lot of the time, consumers think there are a lot of things they can’t buy online,” says Szeto. “This helps expand the market. More people are aware of all the different stores that they can purchase from, and there’s more selection, which is always great.”

Szeto isn’t too worried about losing market share to Canada Post either. He takes a big-picture approach toward the future, suggesting that as online shopping grows in this country, there will be plenty of business to go around. “Even if this means a market share impact, the overall effect I think will be very positive,” Szeto explains. “I’d rather have a bigger pie at the end of the day than compete in a pond.” But for now, it seems Canada Post is the big fish in that little pond.