Le Panier Bleu shows that it is difficult to combine e-commerce and nationalism

“Panier Bleu has a problem. It can’t compete with Amazon. It will always fail,” says the owner of Party Shop.

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Recently I ordered six Quebec flags. One was from Amazon and arrived at my door 19 hours later in one of those padded, can-I-recycle-it packages. I ordered the other five from Le Panier Bleu, a Quebec government-sponsored online portal that promotes and sells goods from merchants in Quebec, and is designed, as its slogan goes, to “get our economy going.”

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Launched in COVID-19 April 2020, the initiative is certainly not lacking in ambition. Le Panier Bleu would not only allow Quebec companies to sell their tchotchkes online, but would bypass search engines like Google in favor of smaller companies, the Quebec government said, while competing with companies like Amazon. By doing so, it would reduce Quebec’s trade deficit. “A little competition for Amazon … and protection for Quebec products,” Prime Minister François Legault recently tweeted.

People seemed happy with the idea. A regional economics professor said Le Panier Bleu could be a boon to Quebec’s terroir, while Le Devoir columnist Michel David wrote it could spark a desire among Quebecers for “relative self-sufficiency.” In June, the government of Quebec, through its investment arm Investissement Québec, invested $12 million in this lofty project.

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I’ll try to be polite here, so let’s start with sympathetic caveats. Le Panier Bleu came about as governments around the world tried to do something for businesses that were shutting down due to COVID-19 restrictions. This alone deserves applause, regardless of the outcome. Building things is also difficult. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994 in his garage. Nearly a quarter of a century passed before he bought his first superyacht.

And Le Panier Bleu isn’t transactional yet, meaning it only directs shoppers to stores and doesn’t process payments or handle shipping. This will change in time for the Christmas rush thanks to government funding, along with a total of $10 million from the likes of Desjardins, Fonds de solidarité FTQ and point-of-sale giant Lightspeed.

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But wow, Le Panier Bleu is a mess. Think of those flags I ordered. Since it’s a Quebec-made venture, I thought the site would be full of the fleur-de-lys. Still, the iconic banner was only available at Party Shop, which sells exactly what the name suggests: balloons, costumes, smoke bombs that reveal the gender of babies.

The accompanying photo was blurry and there was no indication of the flag’s size. I called Party Shop, which has two locations on the south coast. A very nice woman named Aleezia told me that the flag was two feet by three. I had to order five to meet the minimum order amount. About an hour after I placed my order, another nice woman called Sarah called back to say they didn’t have enough two-by-three flags in stock. But they had had enough of three by five, she said. Did I want them? Naturally! The bigger the better.

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The calls were necessary, because shopping at Le Panier Bleu in 2022 is about two decades back in time, to a time when online stores were taking their first tentative steps on the internet. A search for the aforementioned ‘terroir’ results in a haphazard explosion of books, wine, hand soap, gift baskets and dog sledding expeditions. The display is a tad higher than Geocities class. As far as I know, there are no algorithms tracking you, leaving you and your credit card involved.

The flags arrived four days after my Amazon delivery. And here’s the thing: Like the Amazon wares, the Panier Bleu flags were made in China — which, given the site’s economic-nationalist pretensions, seemed like a pretty good argument as to why economic nationalism doesn’t work.

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Daniel Désy agrees. He founded Party Shop in 2003 and made a decent living sculpting balloons and supplying party accessories to Quebec’s party types until the pandemic. He signed up for Le Panier Bleu amid the pandemic when he and his wife, he recalls, “pulled our hair out” in an effort to save the company.

“We listened to the Prime Minister saying he wanted to compete with Amazon, and we were open to the idea. And it’s a good idea, but everything comes from China,” he told me in French, noting how the site sells itself as a showcase for Quebec-made goods. “I have an ethical problem with how they market it.”

Désy’s situation is common among companies in Quebec. Although he estimates that 40 percent of his business is balloon tying — “I’ve been making balloon animals for 27 years,” he says — nearly all of the products he sells come from afar. The balloons themselves come from India and the United States. Its helium comes from the US and, until recently, Russia. Almost everything else comes from China – Quebec’s second largest supplier of goods after the US

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In any case, Désy says that his experience with Panier Bleu has not benefited Party Shop’s profits. My purchase of five $45.89 flags was the only order he remembers through the site. “Panier Bleu has a problem. It cannot compete with Amazon. It will always fail,” he told me. Part of the problem is declining public awareness. While 52 percent of Quebec residents knew about Panier Bleu in 2021, only 14 percent had used the service, according to a study by the Université Laval, meanwhile, nearly half of Quebec’s residents had used Amazon by 2021 — an increase of seven percentage points from 2020.

The point is that, contrary to Premier Legault’s story, Le Panier Bleu does not compete with Amazon. At least that’s what Alain Dumas told me. Since 2020, Dumas has been Director General of Le Panier Bleu, overseeing the shift from a government-initiated stopgap to a government-sponsored marketplace. Government funding was crucial, he said, in part to ensure that Le Panier Bleu had a “long-term financial outlook”. He said the made-in-Quebec mantra extends to the back of Le Panier Bleu, developed by Sherbrooke-based pick-pack-ship outfit Wiptec.

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Dumas says Le Panier Bleu cannot afford to shun Chinese companies, and rightly points out that Quebec’s economy benefits when Quebec-based companies sell goods, regardless of where they come from. But these days he spends a lot of time limiting the expectations of Legault and the government. “We are not positioning ourselves as a competitor to Amazon. Amazon’s focus is the product. Ours is the merchant,’ he told me. “We were inspired by the Amazon model and painted it blue.”

So it’s kind of rich to hear about Legault and his administration being concerned about Amazon’s significant footprint in Quebec as far as they have it. In September 2020 — the month in which the province of Le Panier Bleu won $3.15 million to “continue to promote local buying — Investissement Québec invited Quebec companies to Amazon-sponsored conferences on how to make the most of their wares.” to sell on the Amazon platform. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is equally cozy with the Bezos beast. Through its real estate arm Ivanhoé Cambridge, the manager of the $420 billion public pension fund and model of Quebec’s economic power, co-owns an Amazon sorting facility in the Montreal area.

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Still, with the October election on the horizon, we can expect Legault to hold onto the “made-in-Quebec” conceit while wrapped tightly in the flag. Even if the flag is made in China.

Martin Patriquin is Quebec correspondent for The Logic. He joined Maclean’s in 2019 after 10 years as a Quebec bureau chief. A National Magazine Award and SABEW winner, he has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Walrus, Vice, BuzzFeed and The Globe and Mail, among others. He is also a panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics.

twitter.com/MartinPatriquin

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