Canada is on a roll these days. The economy is strong. Government budgets are generally in good shape. International investors love us. We've gone from dogs to darlings in their eyes and our currency has enjoyed a lovely ride that has carried it to parity with the U.S. dollar for the first time in 31 years.
This latest development was covered on TV and in the newspapers with all the breathless excitement of a play-by-play man calling the dying moments of an important, one-goal hockey game.
"We finally got there," a Toronto Star headline declared triumphantly after the loonie had touched the greenback.
The historic moment occurred on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007, at about 11 a.m. when the dollar traded briefly at US$1.0008 though it closed the day at 99.87 cents.
Economists and various other experts have pronounced this a great moment and perhaps it was. According to economic theory, a stronger dollar is supposed to make imports cheaper and increase consumer purchasing power.
The trouble is, a lot of ordinary Canadians simply don't believe the experts on this. They cannot see that the price of consumer goods reflects the appreciation of the Canadian dollar this year.
Hundreds of people in border communities have been heading south to Buffalo, Bellingham and other U.S. centres and they have reported finding startling differences in the pricing of retail merchandise.
Jeans that cost $115 up here go for $60 down there. A $115 blanket here costs half that in Buffalo. Women in the U.S. pay $70 for a pair of shoes that sell for $130 in Canada.
Experts who try to defend the status quo are likely to be shouted down, or bombarded with e-mails disputing their positions, sometimes convincingly.
Dennis DesRosiers, Canada's foremost auto-industry analyst, was quoted in news reports saying that there was no real difference in the price of vehicles in the two countries.
One newspaper reader e-mailed him to say that there is a $5,000 spread in the Canadian and U.S. prices of a 2008 Honda Accord EX-L V6.
A Winnipegger wrote to say that in July a 2007 Dodge Caravan was listed at $29,890 in the Manitoba capital and at $21,475 in Minot, N.D., a difference of some $6,000 given the exchange rate at the time.
A third reader noted that he had visited the websites of half a dozen Canadian car dealerships and comparable sites for U.S. outlets.
He compiled a spreadsheet to compare the prices of 24 everyday vehicles from Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda. The average difference in prices was about $8,000, or 29 per cent.
Retail analysts say that making such comparisons is tricky.
John Winter, a Toronto-based consultant, says that a big department store may have 100,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs) in inventory and prices can vary from market to market depending on the local competition.
A deep discounter with a dominant position in one urban area can force even a Wal-Mart to price certain goods below what it would charge elsewhere.
As well, there may be slight differences in the products that consumers are comparing. They may both be apples, so to speak, but one may be a McIntosh and the other a Delicious.
Still, even after allowing for the wrinkles and imperfections of comparison shopping, some of the experts say that big spreads do exist in prices and that they are largely unjustifiable.
Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, has compared a basket of goods that includes books, magazines, cars, cameras, fast food and shoes, and found that prices in Canada were on average 24 per cent higher.
So, what's going on? "We have been conditioned for 31 years to believe that our money is not worth as much as theirs," says Winter. "That's finished. There is no reason any more for these price differences."
He foresees a big increase in cross-border shopping.
He also anticipates that consumers are going to rebel - particularly when the pricing gap is staring them in the face.
"People are asking: Why are there two prices on this book," he notes. "Why is it $20 in the U.S. and $30 in Canada? Retailers are going to have to respond or people are going to say: 'To hell with it. I'm not paying this price.' " And they haven't a lot of time to sort things out.
The retail industry's make or break Christmas season is just around the corner.
This country's merchants are going to be hurting, come the New Year, unless they act quickly to stem this brewing consumers' revolt.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)