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Cross-border visitors still buying Decline in value of loonie against U.S. dollar hasn't slowed the flow of bargain hunters here

Those who feared the Canadian shopper boom had gone bust can breathe easy for a while.

With the Canadian dollar taking its steepest drop in value since 2005 Friday, many expected the number of Canadian shoppers coming to Western New York to decline with it.

But if Monday's mall crowds were any indication, the party isn't over just yet.

Blue and white Ontario license plates filled the parking lots at local shopping malls, despite the Canadian dollar's hovering at 86 cents against the greenback.

"It's holiday at home, so we thought we would come down and catch some deals," said Todd Hewitson, of Brantford, Ont., referring to the Canadian celebration of Thanksgiving. "You guys have a much better selection than us."

Dave Forsythe, of Hamilton, said he treks to Western New York and Erie, Pa., to shop about 10 times a year. But even if the loonie continues to lose value, he said, he won't stay away for long.

"I might cut back a little because it might not be worth the gas to drive over [as often]. But, that just means I'll come seven or eight times a year," Forsythe said.

Last November, the Canadian dollar hit its all-time peak of $1.10 after a rapid three-month rise. As a result, area retailers welcomed a flood of Canadian shoppers eager to wield their newfound purchasing power.

Last autumn, international bridge traffic jumped 41 percent as shoppers by the bus and carload contributed to peak waiting times of upwards of five hours.

Yet as the loonie receded to par and even dropped below, revenue from Canadian shoppers kept booming. U.S. retailers were especially grateful for Canadian traffic, as it filled the void left by a tightening American economy.

So, after the loonie dropped 4.5 American cents Friday -- the largest drop since 1961 -- local retailers were understandably edgy.

"I'm somewhat nervous because in Western New York we depend so much on Canadian money," said Hyunja Lee, president of Jainlee, a specialty shoe and collectibles store on Military Road in the Town of Niagara.

Lee keeps a printed list of Canadian holidays taped beside the cash register for quick reference.

"When we have a slow day I start to wonder, 'Maybe it's because of the Canadian dollar.' But I think, even if it's not as busy as it was when we were at par, Christmas will be strong," she said.

Betsey Bonvissuto, marketing director at Boulevard Mall in Amherst, agreed. She said that sales have been good at the mall and that she believes they will stay that way.

"Sales have been steady despite what we've been up against. We're optimistic amidst the gloomy outlook," she said. "We see the license plates in our parking lot every day."

The Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls see perhaps the most impact from Canadians locally. But James Schlesinger, president and chief executive officer of Talisman Cos., which owns the Fashion Outlets, said the influx of Canadians is not dependent on the value of the Canadian dollar but the quality of the American product.

"There has been a lot of talk in the past of how [a dip in the Canadian dollar] will affect us. The fact is, it has no effect," he said, noting sales were up for August and September. "There is no question people will cut back because of the economy, but that is when they look for bargains."

Canadian shoppers echoed several factors continuing to lure them south: access to the latest trends, a more extensive variety of goods, cheaper sales tax and better bargains.

Janice Campbell, of Mississauga, Ont., said that while a strong Canadian dollar helped Canadians feast on American variety in the past, a weaker loonie does not signal famine.

"We were coming when the dollar was at 60 cents. It's still cheaper," she said. "You have stores that we don't have, that's the main thing."

Sati Bhamra, also of Mississauga, who stayed overnight with his wife and friends from Brampton, Ont., to shop at the Fashion Outlets, said U.S. retail savvy has continued to attract Canadians. He said the stores do it by offering great bargains and by timing sales to coincide with Canadian holidays.

"[American retailers] keep ahead of it. We notice the prices are lower during [Canadian] long weekends," Bhamra said.

Bhamra maintained it would take much more than a 4.5 cent dip to keep him and his fellow shoppers away.

"It would have to drop below 50 percent before we would rethink coming," Bhamra said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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