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Study calls Canadians 'untapped opportunity'; Expert says Buffalo Niagara could do more to entice shoppers from north of the border to spend more money on local attractions

Canadian shoppers mean big business for the Buffalo Niagara region's stores and shopping malls. But they could mean so much more for the region, a new study said.

Canadian shoppers pumped an estimated $933 million into the Buffalo Niagara region's economy last year -- a vital source of revenue for stores, restaurants and hotels across Western New York, according to a study released Monday by a Toronto-based tourism marketing research firm.

But that spending could be much higher if the region did a better job getting those visiting shoppers to spend more time visiting other attractions and sites in the area.

"They're missing the local culture. And they're certainly not doing much with entertainment and nightlife," said Michael Erdman, a senior vice president and director of research at Longwoods International, which based its report on a survey of 655 travelers in February.

"This is really a hugely untapped opportunity," he said.

The survey, conducted for the region's two main tourism agencies, Visit Buffalo Niagara and the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., found that visiting Canadian shoppers tend to be younger, well-educated people with above-average incomes. They also tend to be more upscale shoppers, interested in cashing in on the lower prices and wider selection available at the Buffalo Niagara region's retailers.

"These folks are not poor. They're young and urbane. They love to do stuff that's in cities," said Erdman, a Canadian. "We are here because we like to shop. We're here for the elusive bargain we can't get in Canada."

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said the survey is a valuable tool to help the region's businesses and tourism agencies better understand why shoppers come here; who they are; and what they do and don't do while they're here.

That means treating those Canadian shoppers less like longtime neighbors and more like visiting guests, she said.

"Canadians have a very different view than we think they do. We treat them as our neighbors across the river," she said. "They look at us as a place to shop. They look at us as a place to go to a sports event or to fly out of."

And while Western New Yorkers may think their Canadian neighbors know a lot about what to do here, the reality is they don't always know much more than where the local malls are and how to get there.

"We need to not take them for granted," said John Percy, the president and chief executive officer of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.

In response, the region's tourism agencies need to do more to make sure that visiting shoppers are aware of the nonshopping attractions here -- from restaurants and nightclubs to museums and family activities -- and how to get to them.

Percy said that could mean sending visitors messages on their smartphones as they cross the border. It could mean better promotional materials, available at stores and other prominent spots, that would describe those attractions.

Visit Buffalo Niagara also is opening a store and visitor center this summer at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. While most of the people visiting the airport site likely will be just flying in or out of Buffalo, Gallagher-Cohen said Visit Buffalo Niagara hopes it will help show those visitors what they can do here on their next visit. About 40 percent of all passengers flying out of the airport are Canadians.

"It's not about this visit. It's about the next visit," she said. "We have to do a better job helping people navigate what there is for them to see and do."

The study also provided a detailed breakdown of just who those Canadian shoppers are.

*More than half are women, and they tend to be fairly young, with half in the 25- to 44-year-old age group. Better than three out of every five Canadian shoppers come from the Toronto metro area.

*They tend to be well-educated, with about 85 percent having attended at least some college.

*They tend to be fairly well-off, with nearly half having incomes of $100,000 and above, and more than two-thirds earning at least $75,000.

More than half of the shoppers surveyed said they had made shopping trips to the Buffalo Niagara region during the last three years, averaging one overnight trip a year and about 1.5 day trips annually.

Those shopping trips accounted for more than a third of all same-day border crossings in the Buffalo Niagara region. Overnight shopping trips made up 17 percent of all overnight border crossings.

In all, those shoppers spent an estimated $933 million in the Buffalo Niagara region last year, with nearly $400 million going to stores and another $174 million spent on food and beverages. Almost $150 million was spent on transportation, with much of that going toward gasoline purchases by Canadian shoppers filling their tanks at U.S. gas stations.

The survey estimated that the average Canadian shopper spent $266 on a typical day trip and $368 on an average overnight visit.