Last year, 13.8 million people crossed the border into the United States from the four checkpoints between Abbotsford and the Pacific Ocean.
Those numbers are stunning only because I thought they would be higher. Turns out there hasn't been this much traffic at the border in almost 15 years.
The Canadian dollar being at or near par with its U.S. counterpart clearly has a large role in the surging masses heading south. Experts also point to improved facilities at the border crossings and increased allowances for the value of goods Canadians can bring back from their shopping sprees in Washington State - and that's just taking into account what drivers admit to Canada Customs.
The high price of gasoline has made Blaine a quick pit stop for Canadians wanting to save a few shekels on dinosaur juice and many make the trek on a weekly basis. Others simply enjoy a day trip into the U.S. for the sheer joy of visiting another country without paying for lodging, not to mention people looking for a weekend getaway at U.S. casinos without the cheap thrill of getting groped by overzealous YVR airport security personnel.
Given all of these factors, plus the never-ending population growth in the Lower Mainland, it seems surprising that the 1997 benchmark for crossing hasn't been broken long ago.
And what is the driving force behind all of those day trips? Lots of folks are buying gas and catching flights from Bellingham and Seattle, but the vast majority of the people heading over the line are doing so with one goal in mind: shopping. U.S. figures quoted in Wednesday's Province newspaper state that 50 per cent of the sales at Costco and Target stores in the northwest corner of Washington State are to customers in Canada. Walmart sales to Canucks are pegged at 30 per cent.
Interesting. There are big box Costcos and Walmarts blighting the landscape in Canada too and, judging by the lineups customers endure in these soulless concrete cubes, there doesn't appear to be any danger they are suffering from a lack of business. In fact, they're doing so well that Target has, well, targetted Canada and is currently in the process of launching stores across the country, most in the gutted remnants of Zellers locations.
So the Canadians crossing the borders are, for the most part, not in pursuit of anything they can't buy at home. In fact, on their way to the border, most are driving past numerous locations of the same stores they plan to shop when they finally get out of their vehicles in Blaine or Mount Vernon or Seattle.
Like the gasoline, the draw for the shoppers is not the product, but the price.
One of the characteristics that Americans joke about when describing Canucks is our zeal for a good deal. American grocery stores located near the Canadian border sell more cheese and milk than other areas of the U.S. because those foods are much cheaper than the same dairy products sold here. The same goes for other grocery products.
When I'm in the U.S. it's always a head-shaking experience to walk through a big grocery store like Fred Meyer or Cost Cutter Foods just to check out the wine and beer aisles. The same wines that are tagged at $20 in B.C. government liquor stores can be had for eight bucks or less south of the line. They even have discounted sale prices on spirits in the U.S. When I'm in these stores I can always spot my fellow Canadians. They're the wide-eyed folks nudging each other as they point to familiar bottles. It makes we wonder how much isn't declared at Canada Customs each day.
Clothing, shoes and electronic do-dads are all cheaper in the U.S. even though most, if not all, these brands and products are widely available in Canada.
The stuff is the same, but the price isn't and the root of that disparity can be found in Victoria and Ottawa. The taxes upon taxes Canadians pay can be clearly seen with every declaration made to Canadian border guards.
Whenever such studies are conducted, the reactions from our elected officials are predictable: Businesses and communities have to do more to encourage people to shop in Canada rather than use their money to boost the economy of another country. Blah, blah, blaaah.
Really? Canadian businesses aren't the problem. Retailers cut a fine line with their pricing and they simply can't compete with their American counterparts who are not saddled with the same tax structure.
Until that changes, retailers in Surrey and White Rock can only watch as the Canadian consumer dollars flow south along Highway 99.
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Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@ thenownewspaper.com
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