A record number of Canadians are driving their way to good deals this holiday season, taking advantage of a strong dollar and low U.S. retail prices.
"It's been very busy," says Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokeswoman Loretta Nyhus. "We've had significant increase in the volume of traffic both in the same-day shoppers and in the weekend travellers."
Day trips south of the border have been steadily increasing every month, hitting a six-year high in September.
Statistics Canada reports that Canadians made 2.1 million same-day car trips that month, and November and December numbers are expected to be even higher.
The rush of cross-border shoppers has led to weekend waits of over two or three hours at Canada's busiest border crossings.
"We monitor the lineups and usually they'll start around 11a.m. and extend on a Sunday into the evening," Nyhus says. "We'll have to either call in additional staff or keep staff on longer to deal with it."
At the Blaine, Wash., crossing near Vancouver, traffic almost doubled in the lead-up to the year's busiest shopping season.
In Ontario, officials were forced to open a special processing facility when 50 chartered shopping buses began arriving at the Fort Erie/Buffalo crossing after a day of cross-border bargain hunting last month.
But it's not just the borders that are busy. Consumers are also clicking their way to holiday savings.
"We're finding that our U.S. partners on airmilesshops.ca are seeing sales from Canadian consumers increase quite aggressively," says Emmie Fukuchi, general manager of the online shopping mall site that hosts more than 90 leading North American retailers.
With U.S. retailers now targeting Canadian buyers with incentives such as free shipping and special offers, online sales are expected to ring in even higher than previously predicted.
"They're expecting 50- to 100-per-cent growth year over year so we're expecting it to be a pretty significant holiday shopping season online," Fukuchi says.
"There's been a lot of concern about border waits and we're seeing really long lines at the border, so people want to take advantage of the lower prices and strong dollar, and (online shopping) is an easy way to do that."
Fukuchi says the online savings can vary anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.
Take the following Canadian versus U.S. price comparisons Fukuchi did on three popular products:
* Cannon Powershot G9 - $549.99 at Best Buy Canada vs. $499.99 through U.S. retailer Ritz Camera for a saving of $50;
* Levis 501 Original Jeans - $74.99 at Sears Canada vs $46 at JC Penny for a discount of $29 or 40 per cent;
* Calaphon Contemporary nonstick cookware set (10 piece) - $599.99 at Linens 'n' Things vs $399.95 at cooking.com for a $200 saving.
Given the savings, retail experts aren't surprised consumers are shopping around.
"They're voting with their feet," says University of Calgary economics professor Frank Atkins.
"One would hope that if the retailers in Canada are not adjusting their prices and they are losing their business to shoppers going elsewhere, this is a good thing because this is the only way shoppers will be heard."
Shoppers are being heard. Many Canadian retailers are lowering their prices to avoid losing the crucial holiday business.
Some retailers are even going further, like the Calgary-based Pages Books on Kensington, which has introduced on-par or universal pricing.
"Every time we open a shipment of books from a publisher, we see lowered Canadian prices for our customers," says Pages Books on Kensington owner Simone Lee. "But publishers aren't lowering their prices fast enough. We have to do better than that - and right away."
Pages is now selling all of its books at the U.S. price until the end of the year. Lee hopes that by next year, price reductions from publishers will have caught up with the higher dollar.
In the meantime, she'll be taking the loss on stock that was, in many cases, purchased several months ago.
"We want to make books a more attractive choice for Christmas gifts than other American products for which Canadians are still paying a premium, like cars, electronics and clothing."
Bigger-ticket items such as cars are now driving across the border at record-setting rates as Canadian consumers look south for savings.
According to Statistics Canada, 24,873 vehicles were imported from the U.S. in October - that's more than double the number brought up in October 2006.
In 2000, just over 28,000 vehicles were imported in the entire year. This year, almost 137,000 had motored into Canada by the end of October alone - quickly surpassing last year's record of 112,826 imports.
Even at the modest border crossing of Emerson, an average of 40 to 50 vehicles are now being imported every day, says the CBSA.
"There's been a huge increase in vehicles - cars, trucks, boats, ATVs," says the CBSA's Nyhus. "It was 20 per day last spring and in the last few months it's doubled."
Cross-border wheeling and dealing isn't without hazards, though. Manufacturers' warranties are often voided when the car comes to Canada.
Some vehicles aren't admissible in Canada, not all checkpoints handle car imports, and it's crucial to get the paperwork right - and submitted to Customs 72 hours before crossing. Even so, navigating the import course is often worth the savings.
"The secret is out - people can save thousands and thousands of dollars and it's totally legal," says Rochelle Arlitt of A&A Contract Customs Brokers Ltd.
The Vancouver-based company has been specializing in vehicle importation for more than 28 years.
While it used to handle the Customs process primarily for smaller car lots and leasing companies, it's now getting 50 to 60 calls a day from consumers all across Canada.
"Since about Oct. 1 alone, we've seen about a 35-per-cent increase in calls, which is just incredible," Arlitt says. "It's all word of mouth - people are hearing about this and we've actually had to hire an additional five full-time staff to handle the call volume."
Consumers can save the most on a new vehicle - anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, according to Arlitt. Deals can also be found on used vehicles, especially ones that are North American-made and exempt from duty.
The cross-border bargains are so good that A&A is importing thousands of vehicles a week and Canadian car dealers are also cashing in.
"Every car dealership that we're dealing with - new and used - is purchasing from the U.S.," Arlitt says. "Every single day we have reputable businesses bring up cars, trucks, trailers, boats - so they're making money on the other side of it."
Audi Canada announced last week that for the first time in the company's history, the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) has been reduced on nearly all models to reflect the Canadian dollar's parity with the U.S. currency. Most 2008 Audi models (as well as remaining 2007 models) will see price reductions of up to $5,000.
Audi says it is the first manufacturer to reflect Canada's stronger loonie in its prices since parity was achieved in late September.
Boat dealers are also trying to keep competitive for their customers.
"There are a lot of dealers going down to the States to see product and buy them from auctions," says Dick Tigwell of Tigwell Marine & Cycle, near Owen Sound, Ont. "The Florida auction is a very competitive place to go and buy boats."
By purchasing its product directly from a U.S. factory, Tigwell Marine & Cycle is seeing the benefit of a strong dollar - and hoping it won't be left in the wake of the cross-border crunch.
"There's no question that a lot of people don't realize that some small dealers like me can offer them a price as good as the U.S. right now," says Tigwell.
"I can blow away even the big-box stores on snowblowers. If you want a snowblower and want a good price you don't have to go to the States - you can get the American prices right here."
How Canadian businesses will fare this holiday shopping season remains to be seen, but industry experts say one thing is certain: Competition will be greater than ever this Christmas and if retailers want cash instead of coal, they'll have to make sure their presents are the right price.
"The economic reality is that if you don't adjust when you need to adjust, then you're going to close down," says the University of Calgary's Atkins.
(Tess van Straaten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)