The busy Peace Arch border crossing is a frequent route for Lower Mainland residents heading to shop in Bellingham.

Cross-border shopping surge called ‘small’

HST was bigger factor than recent duty-free limit change for overnight trips: Bellingham official

Cross-border shopping by bargain-hunting Canadians got a new lift in recent months with higher duty-free limits for overnight trips introduced in June.

But Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Ken Opplinger said he believes the increased flow of B.C. residents heading south this summer was relatively modest.

He was reacting to new Statistics Canada data showing a 7.5 per cent jump in overnight travel to the U.S. in June.

“There’s been an increase since June but not nearly so much as other places,” Opplinger said. “It’s pretty small here.”

Bellingham had already been experiencing heavy flows of Lower Mainland shoppers coming south for some time, he said, thanks to a combination of B.C.’s introduction of the harmonized sales tax in 2010 and the rise to parity of the Canadian dollar.

“We’ve certainly had substantial increases for a little over two years since the HST first hit,” Opplinger said. “It’s certainly the highest we’ve seen since the early 1990s.”

Canada Border Services Agency staff have also been “much more lax” in checking returning Canadians and enforcing duty payments, he added.

Another draw continues to be the sometimes wide differential between prices retailers charge in Canada compared to stores in the U.S.

Opplinger said his office is still working to defuse friction after some Bellingham locals accused deal-crazed Canadians of being impolite or pushy and set up a Facebook page demanding the local Costco serve only Americans at certain hours.

“We’re still getting emails from Canadians saying ‘Now that I know what you really think I don’t want to come and shop there anymore.'”

He described it as a small number of people not comporting themselves appropriately, but added the vast majority of Bellingham residents have friends and family from Canada and clearly understand the economic benefit from B.C. visitors.

On June 1, duty-free exemptions for Canadians returning home rose from $50 to $200 for a 24-hour stay and from $200 to $800 for stays of at least 48 hours.

Mark Startup, president and CEO of Shelfspace, said it’s difficult to say if cross-border shopping has cost B.C. retailers more sales in recent months.

Retailers here have continued to report climbing sales, he added.

The overnight duty-free changes should not have affected day trippers, Startup said.

And he doubts most shoppers would save enough to justify an overnight stay and the time committed to qualify for the bigger limits.

“You really have to wonder if the difference in the exemption alone has had an impact.”

Shelf Space and other retail organizations continue to lobby the federal government to eliminate or significantly reduce tariffs Canadian retailers pay on many imported goods so they can sell at prices closer to those offered in the U.S.