ROUNDTRIPPING

More Canadians are crossing the border to shop lately. Maybe it’s because the dollar’s stronger. Or maybe, KATHERINE MACKLEM writes, it’s for the fun of it.

December 15 2003

ROUNDTRIPPING

More Canadians are crossing the border to shop lately. Maybe it’s because the dollar’s stronger. Or maybe, KATHERINE MACKLEM writes, it’s for the fun of it.

December 15 2003

ROUNDTRIPPING

More Canadians are crossing the border to shop lately. Maybe it’s because the dollar’s stronger. Or maybe, KATHERINE MACKLEM writes, it’s for the fun of it.

“Bringing anything back with you?” “Yes, sir.”

“Worth?”

“Just under $100.”

“Any tobacco or alcohol?”

“No, sir.”

“See ya later.”

IT’S A FAMILIAR exchange, repeated daily thousands of times at dozens of border crossings. And if anecdotal evidence and historical trends carry any weight, these short and concise conversations between customs officials and Canadians who shop on the border’s south side will become even more com-

mon. No one knows for sure because no one’s actually counting, but officials and retailers say the rising value of the loonie is attracting more Canadians to U.S. outlet malls to empty their wallets and fill up their trunks. The dollar, riding a 10-year high (about US$.77 last week), is providing just the incentive dedicated shoppers have impatiently been waiting for—an excuse to make a trip to the closest U.S. retail concourse.

The proof is in the parking lot. Whether it’s Montrealers heading to Plattsburg, N.Y., Vancouverites going to Bellingham, Wash., or Winnipeggers pulling into Grand Forks,

N.D., there are more Canadian licence plates filling spaces outside popular stores. That trend is being confirmed by border officials who say that, despite longer waits caused by beefed up, post-Sept. 11 security measures, there’s been a surge in southbound traffic. And as the Canadian dollar strengthens, canny American retailers, mall managers and chambers of commerce have begun to advertise in nearby Canadian media outlets, luring more northerners with everything from discount prices to all-in-one packages that include post-shopping dinner reservations and hotel accommodations. Heck,

there are even organized bus trips to deliver bargain-hunters to their designated paradise, or at least a Prime Outlets mall.

But let’s get real. The value of Canada’s dollar is only one force behind Canadians’ propensity to shop in the U.S. There’s also selection. The so-much-larger U.S. population means there are more shops and more choice. U.S. retailers are among the world’s best, and whatever it is they do, it works for Canadians. Plus, the trip is a sortie, a diversion from the daily grind. But the key to what really drives Canadians southward to shop—even when the loonie is worth next to nothing—is simple. Crossing the border to shop is fun.

KELLY BRAMWELL and her husband, John Heide, both in their 30s, live in Ancaster, Ont., about an hour from Niagara Falls, N.Y., depending on the lineup at the border. Last week, they took a day off to shop, most of it at the sprawling Prime Outlets mall just across the border and just a few minutes north of the famous falls. “The quality is amazing,” says Bramwell, looking sharp in a crisp blouse and black fitted down vest, “and the prices are cheap.” Bramwell drives here from her home about six times a year. Heide usually tags along on one of those trips. They came this time, they say, to shop for Christmas presents. But so far, says Bramwell, a smile of guilty pleasure flashing onto her face, they’d only found things for themselves. Some Geoffrey Beene sweaters, at $20 apiece, for both of them. “Couldn’t resist,” she chuckled.

At Prime Outlets, an indoor-outdoor centre with about 150 stores, about 35 per cent of the customer traffic is Canadian, says the centre’s manager, Carrie Neidig. It’s part of a chain of 36 malls strung across the U.S. “When the dollar [Canadian, she means] was a little weaker, Canadian traffic fluctuated [dropped, she means].” But still, she adds, “there were the faithful Canadians who come for the styles.” Of course. The shops at this mall that are popular with Canadians? Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet, Olsen Europe, Timberland and Nine West, she says.

Saks company policy won’t allow store employees to be quoted by name, but one manager there says about half of the clientele are Canadian. On weekends, she says, it can go up to 70 per cent. Traffic heading south was so intense at the Lewiston border crossing on the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend that the wait was up to two hours. The parade of shoppers was in honour of Black Friday, named for post-Thanksgiving sales, not for funereal reasons. That Friday is the launch of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. and is the day that retailers’ books go out of the red and into the black, explains Karen Raepple, manager of Olsen Europe. The apparel brand, sold at the Bay, is familiar to Canadians, Raepple says.

DESPITE the buzz among shoppers, retailers here are not yet worried that their business will be siphoned off to the U.S.

To avoid conflict with full-price retailers, the clothes in the Olsen outlet store are last year’s models, so prices are “wonderful,” she adds. She knows at least 100 Canadian customers by name, and they are coming back more frequently these days. This year, in fact, the store had its “best Black Friday since we opened seven years ago,” Raepple says. “We had a 20-per-cent increase over last year.” The Off 5th manager echoes the observation. “The stronger dollar is a plus for us,” she says. Since October, her store has seen a “surge of Canadian business.” Sales are so far trending to be better than 2001, which was a much stronger year than 2002, she says.

Liz Naumovski, a self-described “crossborder shopping queen” who is still boasting about the Nine West sandals ($125 in Canada) she picked up for US$10 in Buffalo two years ago, doesn’t limit her shopping expeditions to border towns. Recently, she flew to Florida with “another shopaholic” for a week. The point? To shop, of course, and, oh yeah, to visit her parents. She’s also a fan of the Prime Outlets malls, and particularly likes the Ellenton mall south of Tampa. In a couple of days in late November, she filled her cart, not to mention her closet: two pairs of heels and one pair of bowling shoes, four silk Ann Taylor summer dresses, a longsleeved shirt, a few silk tanks and a Kate Spade handbag. “I did really well,” she says. Total spent: US$260. “When we go shopping,” says Naumovski, 40, who works in Toronto’s financial district, “we have fun. It’s the thrill of finding a good deal.”

Naumovski, who drives from Toronto to Buffalo three or four times a year, already has plans for future trips—to New York City this week and back to Florida before the new year. She has four cross-border shopping tips. 1. Don’t go to an outlet mall with a preset list—the merchandise changes all the time. 2. Once you see a deal on something you like, pounce on it, even if it’s out of season. 3. Keep your credit card in your wallet— decide ahead of time how much you can spend and bring that much cash with you. And 4. Don’t try to fool the customs agent. “He’s there all day, and he’s heard all the stories,” she says.

Despite the buzz among shoppers, Canadian retailers are not yet worried the rising loonie means their business will be siphoned off to the U.S. “None of our members have raised this as a concern,” says Peter Woolford of the Retail Council of Canada. He wonders if Canadian shoppers, once they add in the cost of gasoline, the mileage on their vehicles and the time to get there and back, are really finding bargains. Often, he says, items are sold with the same sticker number on the price tag on both sides of the border. “Canadian prices are very competitive,” he adds. But for recreational shoppers, it seems, getting there is at least half the fun. [?]