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Tammy Swift and Wendy Reuer , Published November 15 2010

Strong Canadian dollar a gift for local retailers

It promises to be a holly-jolly shopping season for Canadian shoppers and Fargo retailers if the Canadian dollar continues to thrive.

For more than a week, the loonie has been on or near par with the U.S. dollar, and economists believe it will stay neck-and-neck with the greenback at least until the new year.

Now Canadian shoppers are flocking to U.S. retail hot spots in search of holiday shopping deals. Families waited up to three hours to cross into the U.S. on the Pacific Crossing Highway near Vancouver, Wash., this past weekend, according to Canadian news reports.

Closer to home, Manitoba plates peppered the West Acres parking lot this weekend, and Canadians reported a steady stream of their countrymen heading south on Interstate 29.

The attraction was likely the country’s Remembrance Day holiday on Thursday, which prompted many employees to take off Friday and enjoy a long weekend.

That included Bruce and Gale Morton of Winnipeg. The Mortons said Sunday they came to Fargo a few days prior to celebrate 50th birthdays with friends.

“We came down to do a little sight-seeing and just to get away,” said Bruce Morton. “It’s a different country, a different way of life. Winnipeg is so congested, while Fargo is so spread out and easy to get through.”

They also did plenty of shopping. “Oh yeah, some things are a lot cheaper,” he said.

But not everything. The Christmas toys they bought for their grandchildren cost 25 to 40 percent less, while items like electronics equaled Canadian prices.

John and Doris Harding, also of Winnipeg, had a similar experience. The Hardings were returning home after a three-week vacation, which included stops in Las Vegas and San Diego.

They found U.S. prices weren’t as good as they were 20 years ago. Even so, items like jewelry, footwear and even groceries were a great deal.

Doris Harding points out that a Butterball turkey in San Diego costs 50 cents a pound, as compared to the $2 per pound they pay in Canada.

They also like to visit stores they don’t have up north, like Menards and Walmart Supercenter.

Cole Carley, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he believes it is the variety that keeps the Canadians interested.

“There’s always a fair amount of Canadians that are interested in shopping in the U.S. We have more variety, more to choose from,” Carley said.

Shanna Lee of SHANNALEE, a downtown Fargo boutique, said she always attracts a lot of Canadian customers, as her store is historically popular with out-of-town visitors.

But in the past few months, Lee said Canadian traffic has been heavier than ever. “Yesterday was the best Saturday we’ve had this entire year,” she said Sunday.

Lee said her Canadian customers like the store’s designer shoes, apparel and jewelry – as well as the downtown shopping experience. “Downtown is charming, and people like coming here,” she said.

Along with the variety, shoppers do take into account the exchange rate plus Canada’s 7 percent nationwide tax on goods and services, Carley said.

Of course, when the Canadian dollar rises, it’s a mixed bag in terms of who benefits and who doesn’t.

“Generally speaking, from a stronger currency, consumers win, and producers lose,” Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist with BMO Capital Markets told the Vancouver Sun.

In Winnipeg, officials have worked to change the trend of shoppers heading south for variety.

David Angus, president of Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said his city has worked to create a more diversified shopping experience, still he knows Winnipeggers travel to North Dakota as a small vacation.

“It is something that we keep our eye on. Many years ago, there was a huge issue of people going down to Grand Forks, Fargo, even Minneapolis,” Angus said. “A lot of things have changed. We’ve really expanded our retail base here in Winnipeg, and that has helped keep people here.”

Still, North Dakota continues to look to Canada when targeting tourism.

“We know Canadians love to come to North Dakota for fun city experiences. That’s been our marketing strategy up there for a number of years, and we’ve seen strong results,” said Sara Otte Coleman, director of tourism division with the state Department of Commerce.

The department has tracked the number of vehicles entering North Dakota via the Canadian border. In its third quarter – July, August and September – 256,233 vehicles crossed the border, which is an increase of 18 percent. Year-to-date, crossings are up 21 percent, with 579,040 entering American soil through North Dakota portals alone.

Readers can reach Forum reporters Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530

By the numbers

Average amount spent in Cass County by Canadians per visit:

YTD: 579,040 vehicles crossing the border to visit/vacation in North Dakota.

Source: North Dakota Department of Commerce