It's a Canadian Thing

February 22, 2005 10AM PST

A funny standard has shown up on larger Canadian retail sites that doesn’t appear in other sectors.

Question: the site you’re building requires support for multiple languages. Each needs equal prominence. How do you handle this?

Due to the bilingual nature of the marketplace in my home and native land, an interesting standard has emerged amongst larger e-commerce sites in Canada. Splash pages are making a comeback, or more accurately, they never really died. What’s common on the sites of large retail stores is a mostly useless intro page that forces you to choose your language. Observe:

These are all retail outlets. If you take a look at other industries which must abide by the same language laws, you see something remarkably different:

There are exceptions; HBC is a retail chain that merely includes a ‘français’ link in the top corner. And it may be that the latter sites are serving up customized content based on IP address, though I’ll never be able to test that from here.

Still, it’s interesting to observe the single-mindedness in approaching this problem. In previously working with retailers that have chosen the splash page approach, I’ve come to learn that the choice is driven by politics. If you provide an English page with a link to the French equivalent, or vice-versa, you risk alienating a potentially large percentage of your customer base. So by presenting both on equal ground and forcing the consumer to choose, you side-step the issue and add a half-second delay to their visit to your site. Presumably the adverse reaction to a splash page that might cause some to leave the site completely is far less of a concern than the adverse reaction to not playing the language game well enough.

Incidentally, this also used to be a popular trick for retailers to force a choice between US and Canadian currency. By only providing one method of switching between currencies at the very beginning of the visit to the site, the customer would be far less liable to switch to another currency and compare. Thus, the markup built in to US prices (on top of the exchange rate benefits, when there were any) would less likely be spotted. Sometimes it was justified (extra shipping expense), sometimes it was just a cash grab. Either way, there’s no reliable method of enforcing one currency or the other, and if an American ordered in Canadian dollars they would generally have had to honour the price. By taking away an easy method for the customer to compare, the problem was usually alleviated.

Update: Many have suggested use of the Accept-Language HTTP header to redirect automatically based on which language the user’s browser is configured for. While it’s not foolproof (what happens when someone is using a computer/OS in the wrong language? What if their own is set up properly, but they find themselves at an internet café that isn’t?) it seems to be an elegant solution with just one caveat: make sure to provide the user with a way to change their language after the fact.