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Despite drop in loonie, tradition still draws Canadian shoppers

Jen Corbett's shopping bags are a lot lighter than they were in years past, and her dollar is worth much less than it used to be. Still, the Ontario resident wouldn't miss the deep holiday discounts in America for the world.

Corbett and her five girlfriends have been hitting the Black Friday sales at Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls for 10 years. Every year, they pile into two cars from St. Catharines, fuel up on Tim Hortons and shop 'til they drop.

But now, with the Canadian dollar at just 74 cents American, their boisterous buying is tempered.

"You can't just shop willy nilly anymore. Before, everything was a bargain," Corbett said. "Now you have to be more discerning. You have to watch what you spend and what you buy."

Still, tradition is a strong draw. "It's the fun of it," she said.  "We look forward to it all year."

As the value of the Canadian loonie has fallen, so have the numbers of visits from Canadian shoppers like Corbett. From 2013 to 2015, same-day cross-border trips dropped by 30 percent, according to Statistics Canada. The loss in traffic directly coincides with a drastic drop in the value of the loonie, from 95 cents in November 2013 to 75 cents during the same month in 2016.

That has been a big loss for local merchants, who rely heavily on cross-border Canadian spending.

Isaak Helms works at a Niagara Candy kiosk at Fashion Outlets of Niagara. He said he didn't see as many Canadian shoppers on Black Friday as he has in the past, and he wishes he had.

"People used to complain about the Canadians, and it's like, 'You do realize the amount of money that comes from Canadians coming here buying stuff, right?'" he said.

Canadian license plates that once filled the mall's parking lot are now harder to find, Helms said.

"During the week, I'm out here selling chocolate to ghosts and tumbleweeds," Helms said.

Mason Seger works at both My Favorite Sports Store and Samsonite at Fashion Outlets. He said Canadian traffic has dropped dramatically, but has started to creep back up a bit, especially as the holidays approach.

He said the sprawling Outlet Collection of Niagara, built in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in 2014, is also having an impact. The $162 million mall, just off Queen Elizabeth Way, has roughly 100 retailers.

The Canadian mall offered Black Friday deals this weekend in an attempt to retain cross-border shoppers. Tommy Hilfiger was offering 50 percent off everything in the store. Lucky Brand Jeans was offering 70 percent off. Brooks Brothers had up to 80 percent off.

"It used to be fun for them to drive over and see what we have to offer," Seger said. "Now they're going to explore what they have before they come across."

Arthur Yuro, of Toronto, fills his trunk with bags of gifts from the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls on Friday. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Arthur Yuro, of Toronto, fills his trunk with bags of gifts from the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls on Friday. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Hotels and restaurants have also been affected by the slowed Canadian traffic. Before the dollar dropped in value, it was common for Canadians to rent local hotel rooms, eat in restaurants and shop before heading back across the border.

That would kick into overdrive on Black Friday, when Canadians would pile into their cars and head to Buffalo Niagara in droves. Hotels near area malls would charge premium rates and fill to 100 percent occupancy. But that hasn't been the case  since the Canadian dollar fell in value. Last year, some hotels reported occupancy rates as low as 50 percent.

Things have not improved, according to Frank Strangio, who owns Quality Inn and Wingate by Wyndham hotels in Niagara Falls.

"It's about as bad as last year if not worse," Strangio said. "It's nothing that anybody's doing. It's just that the dollar is so low."

Strangio has put together special promotions for Canadians, including at-par deals, and has partnered with the malls, as well as the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., to advertise directly to Canadians.

"Right away they're at a 30 to 40 percent cost disadvantage and it seems that it doesn't make sense to come here on a superficial level," Strangio said. "But you have to make them understand we have better prices, better selection and they won't get killed on the exchange rate."

The takeaway this Black Friday seems to be that some Canadians are still coming, they're just not buying as much as in previous years.

Debbie Williams of Niagara Falls, Ont., said she used to come to the states to shop as often as once a week, but now it's more like every two months. Still, she said the quality and selection of the merchandise always brings her back.

"You have things we just can't find at home," Williams said. "Look at this," she said, holding up a pink and grey tweed beret she bought for her granddaughter. "Isn't it so cute?"

Once you factor in Canada's higher taxes, Williams said, it takes some of the bite out of the exchange rate. The variety and quality in American stores are worth the extra money, she said. And if you're a savvy shopper, you can still score big.

"There are still deals to be had," Williams said.

schristmann@buffnews.com

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