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For Buffalo Niagara — no longer a magnet for Canadian shoppers — Black Friday has changed

You've heard it all before. Black Friday isn't what it used to be. The deals aren't as great. People would rather shop online than brave the crowds. Sales start as early as August, dampening shopper enthusiasm. And stores open on Thanksgiving, stealing Friday's thunder.

But in Buffalo Niagara, Black Friday has changed in another important way: it's no longer a magnet for the hordes of Canadian shoppers who used to cross the border and revel in the festivities.

Buffalo Niagara retailers have long counted on Canadian cross-border shoppers to keep their cash registers ringing. But for the past couple of years, a weakened loonie has slowed the flow of Canadians crossing the border into Buffalo-Niagara to shop.

That diminished buying power, along with new shopping choices in Ontario, a "shop local" movement in Canada and Canadian retailers' adoption of Black Friday promotions online and in stores, have tempered Canadians' enthusiasm and kept many of them home during Black Friday weekend.

Experts are optimistic that a slightly higher loonie will help bring Canadians back over the long Black Friday weekend, but only time will tell how robust this year's Black Friday turnout will be.

In 2011, the same year Canadian spending helped Erie County collect a record $400 million in tax revenue, the loonie was trading above par at $1.01. Today, it's hovering around 78 cents. Cross-border Canadian traffic patterns mirror the trend. Personal vehicle passengers entering Buffalo Niagara from Ontario declined 26 percent from November 2011 to November 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

At the same time, Black Friday spending across Canada has increased. In 2013, when the loonie began its descent, Black Friday shopping across Canada rose by 19 percent, according to data from Moneris, Canada's largest payment processor. Black Friday spending has increased every year since then, with a 10 percent bump across Ontario last year.

As fewer Canadians are making shopping trips to the states, local retailers are feeling it.  Much of the retail expansion that has taken place in shopping corridors near the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls and Walden Galleria was undertaken with the Canadian audience in mind. Now, our shopping districts are brimming with competition, and the stores there are competing for fewer shoppers.

Competitive pressure is coming from north of the border as well. The Outlet Collection, built in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in 2014, is having a big impact. The $162 million mall, just off Queen Elizabeth Way, has roughly 100 retailers. It contains some stores that are not yet present in the Buffalo-Niagara market, such as the UGG footwear outlet, which offers a much deeper selection of the popular boots than is available here.

Shopping districts have begun co-opting Black Friday excitement by staging their own Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday promotions, as well. The Outlet Collection is offering a free $20 mall gift card when shoppers buy a $200 gift card. Stores at Canada One, a factory outlet on Lundy's Lane in Niagara Falls, Ont., are offering doorbusters during Black Friday week – or doorcrashers as they're called up north. The Pen Centre, a shopping center in St. Catharines, will host special Black Friday festivities on that Thursday and Friday, including gift card and hockey ticket giveaways, along with a "Black Knight" who will surprise random customers by paying for their purchases.

In the past, Canadian shopping centers have mounted "shop local" campaigns, urging Canadian consumers to keep their retail dollars in their own communities. But, as Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of Retail Council of Canada points out, Canadians are used to shopping with retailers around the globe. Because of the country's relatively small population, it long faced a dearth of retail options and has had to go elsewhere.

"Canadian shoppers are well-educated, savvy shoppers," she said. "They shop where they find the best value and, I'm happy to say, they're finding it in Canada."

That's not to say Canadians have sworn off shopping in America, said Stephen Fine, president of CrossBorderShopping.ca, which caters to Canadian shoppers. As the sticker shock from the less favorable exchange rate has worn off, Canadians are hunting for American deals again.

"It's not like it was when the dollar was at par, but they're still coming," Fine said.

The consumers he hears from still covet American brands, deals and selection, and they time their trips to coincide with big sales and shopping events, he said. They often inquire about at-par and other deals with hotels, so they can spend the night and take full advantage of the duty-free allowances.

During Black Fridays past, hotels would book solid with Canadian shoppers who came to snag early morning Black Friday deals. Now, there are plenty of hotel vacancies, though the hotels do have high hopes about last-minute bookings.

With Black Friday sales starting so early in the States, Canadians also might feel less pressure to shop during the work week, and come down on weekends instead. Some hotels have reported seeing groups of Canadians coming for holiday shopping trips much earlier than before, and foregoing Black Friday.

"They started rolling in at the beginning of November," said Andrea Norris, general manager at Home2 Suites by Hilton, on Walden Avenue near the Galleria. "We love our Canadians."

And many Canadians still love us. Some, like Shelly Berenbaum of Toronto wouldn't miss Black Friday in Buffalo Niagara for the world. The annual trip has become something she looks forward to all year. She has been spending Black Friday here for years, and old habits are hard to break.

"All of our friends are still coming back this year," she said. "It is tradition."

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