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Americans visited their neighbors to the north 41.7 million times in 2000, accounting for two-thirds of Canada's foreign visitor count last year.

However, that's 580,000 fewer trips by U.S. residents than in 1999.

That trip count includes 15.1 million stays of one or more nights, and 26.6 million same-day visits, according to Statistics Canada. The overnight count is off four-tenths of 1 percent from the prior year, while total same-day visits are down 2.5 percent.

For their part, Canadians made 14.6 million overnight trips to the U.S. last year, up 3.5 percent from 1999. Their rate of same-day travel remained unchanged from the year before, at 27.1 million quick journeys across the border to America.

The cross-border travel activity took place against a background of relative stability in terms of the exchange rate. Over 2000, the value of the U.S. dollar spent in Canada averaged $1.49.

Here in the Buffalo Niagara region, both Americans and Canadians were a bit more active in terms of same-day, cross-border forays. The four local international bridges - the Peace, Rainbow, Whirlpool and Lewiston-Queenston spans - recorded a total of 7.83 million same-day trips by Americans, down a slight six-tenths of 1 percent, from 7.88 million in 1999.

Canadians made 3.63 million same-day trips last year, a 1.5 percent increase from the prior year.

Because same-day travel is generally viewed as a barometer of cross-border shopping activity, both Western New York and Southern Ontario merchants expressed satisfaction with the travel trends.

Ken Anderson, owner of the IGA supermarket at 200 Garrison Road in Fort Erie, said Statistics Canada's data, which shows a small dip in local cross-border shopping, doesn't match what he sees in his store.

"Our number of American shoppers is only going up," Anderson said, a trend he's hoping to help along through advertising that targets U.S. residents.

The grocer, who first used sponsorships on WNED-TV, Buffalo's public television station, has recently branched out with spots on WNYO-TV (Ch. 49) and radio station WYRK-FM.

"We've noticed a pick up in business over the past two years," Anderson said. "I think the favorable exchange rate is a big part of it, but we also carry things you can't get across the border."

The market attracts a crowd of Americans on Thursdays, according to the grocer, when a shipment of Dimphlmier European-style bread arrives from Toronto. Specialty cuts of pea meal bacon, and other Canadian favorites also keep U.S. shoppers coming back.

John Methot, manager of the Country Fair Mall, which houses the IGA, along with a Zellers store and a Shopper's Drug Mart, said although he doesn't keep numerical data on American customers, he spots the license plates in his parking lots.

"A fair amount of steady business comes from Americans with homes and cottages over here, but we're getting people coming over for lunch, or bingo or slots, who stop and shop," he said. "We're also seeing buses stop, and people coming to fill their prescriptions."

On this side of the border, local malls are continuing to count Canadian shoppers, despite the fact their dollar has averaged a meager 67 cents (U.S.) for more than 18 months.

"They're not coming as frequently, but when they do come, they are staying in the mall longer and buying more," said Rob Belue, manager of Prime Outlets USA, in the Town of Niagara.

The giant outlet mall estimates that 30 percent of its sales are from shoppers with southern Ontario addresses.

"I think that they've just gotten used to the exchange rate, and biting the bullet," Belue added.

Prime Outlets reaches out to Canadians through infrequent ads in Toronto and Hamilton newspapers. The mall also benefits from ads on Buffalo radio and television stations, which Belue describes as "floating across the border" to reach Canadian eyes and ears.

The mall's merchants also craft promotions targeting shoppers from the world next door. For example: the DKNY store gave Canadians a day-after-Christmas present with a Boxing Day event during which Canadian money was taken at par.

The Walden Galleria, which counts Canadian shoppers as 14 percent of its total customer base, has been a popular destination for the foreign consumers since it opened. The mall, which has lured local shoppers with its unique blend of retailers, continues to attract Canadians who find the collection of U.S. stores even more exotic.

"In the past few years more U.S. retailers have opened stores in Canada, but we still offer a lot of merchants they don't have," said Galleria manager Jim Soos.

"The unique stores and merchandise eclipses the lop-sided exchange rate for a certain segment of shoppers," he said. "We've lost the value-oriented Canadians who came in 1989 and '90, when the Canadian dollar was at its peak, but the traffic from Canada is still strong."

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