The coronavirus crisis is giving Quebec’s nationalist government an excuse to attempt what may be impossible.
The Canadian province is embarking on an uphill battle to chip away at Amazon.com Inc.’s position. Reckoning that weeks of confinement will permanently accelerate the growth of online shopping, Premier Francois Legault wants to boost Quebec retailers’ digital sales, and is urging the population of 8.5 million to buy from local firms.
His government took a first step by building an online directory of retailers called Le Panier Bleu — or Blue Basket, a reference to the color of the French-speaking province’s flag. To run it, the government recruited a board including the former president of Lowe’s Cos. Inc. in Canada and Alexandre Taillefer, a private equity partner who years ago floated the idea of a Quebec response to Amazon’s dominance.
“People will be able to see what’s available in their region,” Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said in an interview. “There’s a solidarity developing, I want to capitalize on that.”
Quebec’s nationalism, which is rooted in the 1960s economic and political emancipation of its French-speaking majority, predisposes the population to close ranks behind local businesses, according to Andre Lecours, a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. The province has a number of sizable homegrown retailers, such as Simons department stores, and has produced a few international players.
Amazon is fighting stronger opponents in other countries, including France, where it lost a court fight to sell the whole range of its products. France has restricted the company’s deliveries to food, health items and computer products to protect workers from the coronavirus.
The track record of Canadian-made alternatives to Amazon is not good. One of most famous failures was a site called Shop.ca, backed by several big names in business and former hockey star Eric Lindros. It flopped and wound up in bankruptcy court in 2016.
Few Quebec companies are known for their online retailing success. According to a survey by CEFRIO, a digital research and innovation group backed by the government, more than a third of Quebec adults make at least one purchase per month on Amazon. Yet in another report published in 2018, only 14% of the Quebec firms surveyed said they sold products online.
“There’s probably a greater mobilization potential in Quebec than in the rest of Canada because of nationalism,” Lecours said. “Still, let’s be honest, Quebecers too shop at Costco and Walmart, because it’s cheaper. If a Quebec purchase is 10%, 15%, 20% more expensive, at what point do they give up?”
Efforts to drive money from national sentiment were already in underway before the Blue Basket launch — including an online store called Ma Zone Quebec, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Amazon. Local media also joined in, suggesting Quebec substitutes for groceries such as Kraft Heinz Co.’s barbecue sauce or Heineken NV’s beer.
When Legault and Fitzgibbon unveiled the Blue Basket during an April 5 press conference, they described it as a non-for-profit organization that aims to make both merchants and Quebec richer — an overarching goal for the premier, who often says he wants to close the wealth gap with other provinces.
“An initiative to promote local commerce isn’t an initiative against free trade,” Fitzgibbon said then. “It’s a unified communication approach to enable our small retailers to do well against companies that have huge marketing resources.”