Suspicion dies hard: study

From a young age, we are taught to be suspicious. We know not to talk to strangers or take their candy, not to leave our drinks unattended in a club or to Rolexes from people on the corner.

And it seems we’re looking over our collective shoulder on-line as well, according to a recent study performed by Columbus Group and Ipsos-Reid.

Chris Ferneyhough, vice-president of technology research at Ipsos-Reid’s Toronto office and author of the study, contends that our national wariness shows when it comes to our attitudes toward e-commerce.

“Americans are much more likely to dive in and pay the consequences later,” Ferneyhough explained. “Canadians are more apt to wait and see if something’s going to pan out and then give it a try if everything seems to be okay.”

Clearly, Canadians are testing the waters of e-commerce and making decisions about who should be trusted with their information. Frank Koblun, vice-president of consumer e-commerce at HMV in Toronto, has seen a change in consumer attitude within his own company. “The Canadian psyche has made a huge leap,” Koblun said.

The study provides evidence for this evolution in on-line comfort levels, but suggests that Canadians are holding on to some of their suspicious instincts. In the 1,000 interviews conducted on-line and an additional 1,500 by telephone, 82 per cent of Canadian Internet users said they have shared personally-identifying information at a Web site, however they are unwilling to dispense this information to just anyone. Seventy-four per cent of those surveyed indicated that it is a company’s reputation that prompts them to feel comfortable enough to provide private data.

Vancouver-based Ash Abhyankar, Teldon International’s director of sales for marketing and e-business, believes that the reasoning behind this statistic is that people assume that the more recognized the brand name is, the lower the risk of their information being abused. In many cases, this reputation is born of the Internet user’s physical experience with a company.

“There is a huge competitive advantage that bricks and mortar locations have over their peers. They’ve got that physical face to themselves that consumers can link to their on-line site and know that there is a physical entity and they know where they can go if something goes awry,” Ferneyhough said. “If they’re dealing with someone they know they can trust and have an established relationship with, people are going to be willing to share information.”

Koblun agrees with Ferneyhough, and suggests HMV’s brand name greatly contributes to its on-line trust factor.

“Because HMV is a company with stores across Canada, people know that if they have a problem shopping on-line they can just march right down to a store and look somebody in the eye,” Koblun said. “It absolutely is an advantage.”

The study goes on to state that 55 per cent of those surveyed feel that a company’s privacy policy promotes a feeling of comfort. “Organizations that have not yet recognized the importance of a clear privacy policy are shooting themselves in the foot,” Ferneyhough said.

CIBC’s communications specialist for direct to consumer banking, Toronto’s Joe Heim, stressed the importance of having a solid privacy policy in place.

“We are in a position where customers entrust us with their personal information every day,” Heim explained. “They give us everything from their addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, partners and children, and even more sensitive facts like their earnings, net worth and even their cash flow details. We’ve had to be proactive with our privacy policy.”

Andrew Cole, Bell Canada’s Toronto-based manager of media relations, believes the existence of his company’s on-line privacy policy is as important for a user’s peace of mind as it is for practical safety reasons.

“If you’re going to buy a new house you take all the necessary steps to enjoy it,” Cole said. “You paint it and put wallpaper up, but you also want to make sure that the locks work and that the windows are closed so that (you) know that you have an acceptable level of security. It’s the same thing for giving information on-line.”

As Internet users become more experienced with e-commerce, it is likely that they will become more relaxed about using a wider variety of Web sites, however, this is not an option for the companies administering the sites.

“Companies are always going to have to continue to pay attention to their privacy policies and to making their users feel secure,” Ferneyhough predicted. “It’s not something that they can let slide, because consumers are pretty fickle. It only takes one bad experience or one highly public breach and it’s pretty much game over for that e-tailer.”