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Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published July 21 2012

Home supply stores draw Canadian shoppers

GRAND FORKS – Shoppers from Manitoba have a tendency to travel far from home for a good deal, but their bargain-seeking is particularly evident when it comes to buying things for their homes.

“At least once a day, maybe twice,” is how often Chris Nero, store manager at the Grand Forks Menards, said he has a truck delivering purchases north of the border. “We keep getting busier with Canadians every day.”

While many big retailers in the Grand Forks area draw crowds of Canadian shoppers, home improvement and building supply stores such as Menards and Lowe’s have been especially popular with travelers prepared to spend large sums for big projects and willing to go a long way for the savings available here.

“You see a lot of trailers in parking lots,” said Sandy Dobmeier, visitor services manager for the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau. She has heard of cases in which shoppers could get a savings of $5,000 by shopping in the United States.

Also, to Nova Scotia

Menards has offered delivery service to Canada since 2007. Lowe’s began offering it in 2011 and makes two or three deliveries a month.

Even with the added cost of delivery, which the stores declined to provide, the savings are still an incentive for people to spend their money in the United States and ship their purchases home.

“They’re telling us the products they’re purchasing in Winnipeg is sometimes twice and even three times what they’re paying here,” said Melissa Bartak, assistant store manager for Lowe’s in Grand Forks.

A banner hangs near the entrance of the store informing Canadian shoppers of the delivery service. Lowe’s also places fliers advertising delivery at some area hotels.

The Grand Forks Lowe’s is the chain’s first store to offer delivery to Canada, and it trucks goods beyond Manitoba. The chain could eventually expand deliveries to other stores near the border, according to Bartak.

“We’ve gone as far west as Alberta and as far east as Nova Scotia,” she said. “It’s been a really good start to the program.”

The Grand Forks Menards is not the only Menards to make cross-border deliveries, but the service has helped make it one of the top stores in the nation, Nero said.

“We’ve been up as far as Thompson and The Pas,” he said.

Both towns are in the middle of Manitoba’s northern region.

Building boom

Like other cross-border retail in Grand Forks, the demand for home improvement goods is based in part on prices, usually lower in the United States because of Canada’s higher tax rates. But it is also based on the selection of retailers and a building boom in Manitoba.

“We are in a very aggressive new housing market now,” said Mike Moore, president of the Manitoba Home Builders’ Association.

Housing starts in Winnipeg were the highest in 25 years in 2011, he said, and are poised to set another record this year.

While the Home Depot has stores in Manitoba, including four in Winnipeg, Lowe’s and Menards have not followed.

“There’s always been a history of do-it-yourselfers always going down to Lowe’s or Menards,” Moore said. “It’s a store you don’t have so you want to go there.”

Moore also acknowledged that price differences could be large between the two countries, and that reports of prices in the United States being 50 percent lower than in Canada were believable.

“There’s no doubt our taxes are higher,” he said.

Nero and Bartak said their Canadian customers buy everything from kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanities, windows, doors, flooring and lumber. For projects that add up to four and five digits, 50 percent off is enough of an incentive to travel to North Dakota, even with the added cost of shipping.

“It’s still worth it,” Nero said. “And I think they like to come down and get a motel and go out to eat.”

Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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