A strong Canadian dollar, an increase in the value of duty-free goods Canadians can take home and a gradual post-9/11 relaxation along the border have boosted sales of everything from milk to vacuum cleaners in American border stores.
The Canadian government this week reported that overnight travel to the U.S. rose 7.5% in June from the same month last year, the highest level in 40 years. Canadians took 1.9 million overnight trips into the USA in June, according to the Canadian government. U.S. overnight trips to Canada were up 1.1% to 1 million.
Officials on both sides of the border say there is no way to know how the trips divide between tourists and shoppers. But U.S. tourism and business leaders along the border from Washington to Vermont say that more Canadians are taking shopping vacations in the USA.
The influx of Canadian shoppers even provoked a controversial Facebook page urging the Bellingham, Wash., Costco to set aside hours just for Americans. In response, a British Columbia vendor is selling $20 "milk piranha" T-shirts to salute Canadians who take advantage of U.S. milk prices, which can be roughly half of what Canadians stores charge.
"We have seen an additional increase since June," when higher duty limits were imposed, says Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, which borders British Columbia. He says American businesses "just laughed (the Facebook page) off."
Starting in June, Canadians who spend 24 hours in the USA can bring $200 in goods back duty-free, up from $50. Those away 48 hours or more can bring back $800, a fourfold increase. Oplinger says the higher limits are only part of a longer-term increase of cross-border shopping fueled by gains in the value of Canada's currency and looser border enforcement in general.
Cross-border commerce "flat lined" for about eight years after 9/11, but traffic from Canada into Bellingham has increased nine quarters in a row, he says.
The Canadian dollar was worth 64 cents American in 2002, but the two currencies have been roughly on par since 2010, giving Canadians more buying power in U.S. stores.
•In Detroit, Canadian shoppers at the 160-store Fairlane Town Center Mall noticeably increased beginning in June, mall manager Cathy O'Malley says. "The new rules give a little more latitude to come over and … purchase things such as a vacuum cleaner, a bigger-ticket item" without having to pay a duty, she says.
•New England states have put up road signs in French to welcome tourists and shoppers from French-speaking Quebec. A Burlington, Vt., French cultural group is offering free French classes to store clerks.
Donna Higgons, executive director of Vermont's North Country Chamber of Commerce, says that her group's welcome center near the border registered 1,653 visitors in July, mostly Canadians, up from 470 in July 2011. She says the top question asked at the center this summer has been about places to shop.
"I have been talking French like it is coming out of my ears," Higgons says.