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Shoppers crossing border for deals

Thu., Dec. 6, 2007

Here’s a little story to illustrate how the strength of the Canadian dollar affects retail spending in Spokane.

Last month, the 42 women onboard the Savvy Shopping Bags bus tour from Edmonton spent nearly $48,000 during a three-day visit.

“Our dollar is doing so well against your dollar that most of us took advantage of it,” said Liz Greening, the tour’s organizer.

Greening, a 46-year-old dairy farmer who lives north of Edmonton, personally took home 21 pairs of shoes – including a $7 pair of stilettos from Fashion Bug. “I have a shoe fetish,” she explained. “I’m one of those people who likes to wear heels to the grocery store … though I also have some funky rubber boots.”

The annual tour is a girlfriend event, attracting other women with agricultural backgrounds. In November, when farming chores slow down, the women charter a bus and hit Spokane for a three-day shopping spree over the Veterans Day holiday.

The event takes place no matter how the loonie is performing against the greenback. But when the Canadian dollar is stronger, the women spend more.

This year, with Canadian currency virtually on par with the U.S dollar, the women dropped an extra $10,000 in Spokane stores, according to Greening. At Fred Meyer alone, the women spent more than $2,500 – qualifying for 100 free turkeys through a store promotion, which they donated to a food bank.

Canadians are an important, though virtually untracked, part of the Inland Northwest’s tourism industry.

The Spokane Regional Visitors and Convention Bureau would love to know how British Columbia and Alberta residents contribute to the $740 million in annual visitor spending in Spokane County, said Jeanna Hofmeister, the CVB’s vice president of destination marketing. But since Canadians blend so seamlessly into the local landscape, their economic impact is hard to estimate, she said.

But one area that’s more visible is Canadian tour buses, and they’re on the rise.

“It’s very popular for our customers to come down to your area for shopping,” said Roland Neave, president of Wells Gray Tours in Kamloops, B.C.

The tour company books about six excursions to Spokane each year, combining Broadway events with visits to the Spokane Valley Mall, NorthTown Mall and Nordstrom. Wells Gray Tours recently sent a busload of 50 people to Spokane for Disney on Ice and “The Wedding Singer.” It also has excursions booked in January, February and March.

“Five years ago, when the Canadian dollar was so poor, we could hardly sell a trip into the States,” Neave said.

But after slumping to 63 cents on the U.S. dollar in 2002, the value of the loonie has been on a steady rise. Wells Gray’s buses cross the border at Oroville, Wash., where it often takes an hour on Saturday mornings to get to the U.S. side. That tells Neave that an awful lot of other Canadian shoppers are heading to the United States to look for bargains.

Studies reveal strong correlations between exchange rates and Canadian travel. According to a Canadian Tourism Commission report, each 10 percent gain in the value of the Canadian dollar results in a 15 percent increase in overnight travel to the United States.

“Canadians have always loved to shop here,” said the CVB’s Hofmeister. “It’s not just the dollar and the loonie. Similar items in the U.S. cost 25 to 35 percent less than they do in Canada. …They definitely see this as a value market where they can come to eat, shop and do it on the budget.”

One woman in the Savvy Shopping Bags tour brought a list of electronic items for price comparisons. But Greening questioned whether U.S. merchandise really costs that much less than Canadian goods.

Women on her trip devote 12 and 14 hours per day to shopping, which helps them ferret out the best buys. Many don’t have the time to shop that single-mindedly at home, she said.

“We’ve got awesome shopping up here,” Greening said, noting her proximity to the West Edmonton Mall, which advertises itself as one of the world’s largest retail centers. The Spokane trip is “more a weekend away and a chance to get different kinds of merchandise,” she said.


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