Canadians are returning to Western New York to shop

In the parking lot of The Boulevard shopping center last weekend, there were several cars with Ontario license plates in every row.

In the store, Canadian accents can be heard in the aisles.

At the registry, Canadian shoppers are helping support Erie County’s economy and its tax base with every purchase.

It’s been a long time coming for the Buffalo Niagara retailer. For the better part of the past 2.5 years, Covid and the resulting restrictions have kept cross-border shoppers away in some form.

As the pandemic stabilizes and travel restrictions ease, Canadians have begun returning to the region to shop, dine, play and stay overnight. Retailers are hoping their numbers will increase as the Canadian government shakes off its last Covid-era transit rule.

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After 30 months of barriers to transit, from complete closures to the need to use the ArriveCan mobile app, the new development means normal traffic and commerce can resume freely.

“Over the past 2.5 years, we’ve seen very little transaction volume from Canadian clients,” said Mike Patti, regional vice president at Tops. “Over the past three to four months, we’ve increased some sales in our stores primarily in Niagara County or near the border, especially as we see restrictions ease.”

That clears the way for a more comprehensive economic recovery in the region. Canadian spending is a big part of Western New York’s economy, and it’s sorely missed. In 2019, Canadians spent $59.1 million in Niagara County alone, according to a Visa Vue study that tracks Visa card spending.

The exchange rate is not conducive to Canadians entering the U.S. to shop, inflation is keeping prices high, discretionary budgets are tight, and a recession is looming.

Canadians also have time to develop new habits, move closer to home and shop at their own outlet malls, which offer brands and options that were once only available at discounted prices in the United States.

Despite the challenges, the allure of cross-border shopping remains strong for many.

Last week, Kitchener’s Emily Tremblay had a shopping cart full of makeup, homewares and pumpkin-scented candles. She’s going next door to Trader Joe’s to get some groceries.

Tremblay said it was a “torture” when the bridge was closed due to the coronavirus, and she has been shopping in the US since the bridge reopened.

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“A lot of different couples broke up. A lot of people died,” Lizz Switzer said. “But we just made up our minds that we’re not going to let anything happen to us.”

“We have some stores that you own, but they’re not the same,” she said. “We’re not getting the same thing, and your prices are still better.”

The bridge closed in March for 17 months before reopening in August 2021. It has left consumers on both sides of the border stuck just minutes from home, without access to shops, businesses and people — a country that has always felt like their own backyard.

Traffic roughly doubled in the year the border reopened, according to the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. In August, the Peace Bridge was the busiest gateway in the region between Canada and Western New York, with 376,195 crossings. But that’s down 37% from pre-pandemic levels, with 597,528 people crossing the border in August 2019, so a full recovery is still a long way off.

Officials and businesses hope the newly lifted border crossing requirements will help increase those numbers.

“The elimination of ArriveCan is a big deal, but in my opinion, random testing and vaccination requirements are a great deterrent to crossing the border quickly,” said Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Collaborative. The certainty and restrictions are gone and we will see a rebound in shopping and sporting events.”

But she said the backlash would not be immediate and would require some coaxing.

“We’ve broken habits on both sides, so we need to aggressively communicate that we’re open for business and welcome Canadians back,” she said.

Tops Markets does just that.

“While they’re not our primary customers, they’re certainly a useful part of our shopper base,” said Patty, regional vice president.

canadian shopper

A shopper leaves Target on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.

Mark Mulville/Buffalo News

The Amherst-based grocery store has been working hard to get them back. It has been running heavy ads in Ontario’s Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort Erie and, in the far north, St. Petersburg. Catherine. It targets important holidays such as Canada Day, Provincial Day, and Canada Labour Day.

“When we saw restrictions ease, we did additional advertising,” Patty said. “If we look to the future, we’ll be doing more advertising in stores with in-store signage and A-frames.”

Despite external challenges, Canadians will continue to return to the U.S. to buy items they can’t get in Canada. Things like Rolling Stones Beer, Dinty Moore Stew, Morton Salt, Froot Loops Cereal and Ragu Spaghetti Sauce.

“Some people even call ahead to the store to make sure we have it in stock,” Patty said.

Goods are also much cheaper here than north of the border, so it’s easy for Canadians to cross the bridge to stock up. Things like beer, poultry, and butter are cheap, and Canadians fill up their gas tanks when they’re here. Gas prices here are $1.50 less per gallon than in Ontario. In times of inflation and economic downturns, these savings make travel more enticing.

Entering the peak holiday season, factors such as exchange rates will have a greater impact. The Canadian dollar is currently worth about 73 cents, about 2 cents lower than it was before the pandemic.

“The holiday issue is a big unknown,” said the partnership’s Gallagher. “The U.S. dollar is stronger than the Canadian dollar right now — that’s not good for a retail recovery. A stronger U.S. dollar, whichever side it is, will push who goes where.”

In fact, when it comes to shopping in Canada, this holiday season will be one to watch.

Patrick Kaler, President and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said: “The holidays will provide a good indicator to monitor the rest of 2022 and into the new year.”

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