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“There is such a gap between where Canadians are and where independent retailers are,” says Chris Hodgson, the head of retail and tech sectors at Google Canada.Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images/iStockphoto

With holiday shopping season around the corner, the majority of Canadians say they're planning to research gifts online, but small businesses might not be ready.

A survey released on Oct. 15 found that 72 per cent of Canadians are planning to research gifts online.

While the survey, conducted by Ipsos MediaCT for Google Canada, says 31 per cent of respondents would prefer to shop at small businesses, a related study conducted by the Retail Council of Canada, found that 61 per cent of independent retailers in Canada have no online presence.

"There is such a gap between where Canadians are and where independent retailers are," says Chris Hodgson, the head of retail and tech sectors at Google Canada.

He says that while Canadians are using the Internet more than people in many other countries, they've been slower start purchasing online. That means much of that online research is "driving people into stores."

But, without an online presence, Mr. Hodgson warns that even consumers who want to support local businesses will "struggle to find those retailers" and might go elsewhere.

Winnipeg's Imperial Cabinets is one of those businesses. Dean McConnell, the company's president, says he's been working to get his business online since he bought the custom cabinet maker and seller earlier this year.

His goal is to attract consumers who are doing research online and get them into his show-room.

Mr. McConnell says all the cabinets his company makes are to custom specifications and selling online would mean he wouldn't be able to maintain the same attention to detail and level of service he wants to provide.

That's not a bad move, says Hicham Ratnani, the chief operating officer of Frank and Oak, Montreal-based online menswear retailer and clothing brand.

While "customers expect an online presence," he says what that looks like depends on the business and its target demographic. For some businesses it "doesn't have to be a full storefront."

Mr. Ratnani will be one of speakers at Retail Spark, a new partnership between Google and the Retail Council of Canada. The program consists of both an online component and live events in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

According to Mr. Hodgson, the survey shows the need for programs like this; 49 per cent of participating small business owners said they "need more guidance and support" when it comes to using the Internet to promote their business.

But while he says that businesses need a basic web presence at the very least, for some small businesses, that's not enough.

"We've always had a web presence," says Pierre-Benoit Duham, the owner of Clusier, a high-end men's clothing boutique in Montreal. "It drives more traffic to the store."

But, with online-only retailers adding the the competition, Mr. Duham says he had to start selling online "just to stay competitive."

Still, the retail store remains the main focus. "It's not just a transactional website, it's more of a window," Mr. Duham says, allowing customers to see what the store has on offer before coming in.

As part of the move into e-commerce, Clusier also launched an online lifestyle magazine. Having content like that helps the company appear higher in online search.

It also helps the company build its brand and show customers that "we're more than just products, we're people behind products," he says.

"Advertising online has almost become saturated," Mr. Duham says. Now, he says the challenge for businesses like his is setting themselves apart.

That's important for Frank and Oak as well, says Mr. Ratnani. "I think a lot of people try to be a lot of things to a lot of people," he says. But small businesses don't have that option – instead they have to be "meaningful to a select group."

Janet Cambell says she's taken a similar approach. She owns Mrs. McGarrigle's, a Merrickville, Ontario store that sells homemade mustard and other gourmet food products. While her store has had a website for almost 20 years, she says the e-commerce side is "still in it's infancy."

Like 56 per cent of small business owners counted by the Ipsos study, Ms. Campbell says being an independent retailer has gotten more challenging.

"Retail, 20 years ago, was a little more forgiving," she says. The past five years have been particularly tough. "Part of that is online shopping," she says, but big box stores are also having an impact.

That's why she's expanding her e-commerce offerings, adding more of the local and hard-to-find products she sells in her store.

Ms. Campbell says she had her website redesigned this spring and is already seeing more sales but finding the time and money to invest in the website has been a challenge.

Clusier's Mr. Duham has seen the same thing. "These are significant investments," he says. "Adding an online store cost 60 per cent" of the cost of opening a new location, he says. Though, now that it's up and running, keeping the site updated is about half a single employees workweek.

The costs of getting online have led to calls from the Internet Association, a U.S.-based trade group, for the Canadian government to implement a "digital renovation tax credit." That credit would be intended to help get small businesses online and help them improve their digital presence.

But while a credit would help with cost, time is also a factor for small business owners. When Mr. Duham decided to make the jump into e-commerce, he says he hired a consultant not to work on the site but to help teach him about the concepts behind it.

Having the knowledge to manage his online operations directly paid off, Mr. Duham says. Soon after he started selling online he noticed that many people would start shopping at his online store but were't checking out. He realized there were too many steps and had it reprogrammed to simplify the process.

"All these things have to be thought through," says Mr. Duham.

It's a common, Google's Mr. Hodson acknowledges. He says small business owners "don't spend enough time walking in their customers shoes online." He recommends that they take the time to see how they show up online and "find out if that experience is driving people into their business."

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