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Survey indicates cross-border shopping becoming routine in Whatcom County

Canadian cars heading into the U.S. line up at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine on Monday morning, Jan 28, 2013.
Canadian cars heading into the U.S. line up at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine on Monday morning, Jan 28, 2013. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Even with a weakening loonie last winter, significantly more Canadians are coming down to shop in Whatcom County than six years ago.

That is one of the insights from a vehicle survey recently released by the Whatcom Council of Governments. The survey estimates 247,024 people came southbound through four of the five Whatcom County border crossings (excluding Point Roberts) in February 2014 to shop or fill up vehicles with gas, up from 83,143 in February 2008.

In February 2014 the Canadian dollar was tumbling from around 95 cents to less than 90 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. In February 2008, the Canadian dollar was at par compared to the U.S. dollar.

The overall data suggests that shopping in Whatcom County is becoming a habit for many British Columbia residents, said Hugh Conroy, manager at the Whatcom Council of Governments. He noted one trend was an increase in border crossings for regular travelers.

The February survey was done by Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute. This was the second part of the survey for this period; the first part was done in July 2013.

Half of the people in the February 2014 survey said they were going shopping or fueling up on gas, up from 28.1 percent in February 2008 and up from 24 percent in November 2000.

The percentage of people listing vacation as their purpose declined from 13.3 percent in February 2008 to 7.2 percent in February 2014.

The survey indicated that the exchange rate is on the minds of some Canadians. For those in the survey who said they were traveling across the border less frequently, 13 percent said it was because of the exchange rate.

However, 8.5 percent said they were shopping more because of the exchange rate, even though the Canadian dollar was weakening. A variety of factors could be at play, said Hart Hodges, director at WWU’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

“Even with a drop, it still made things relatively cheap in the U.S.,” Hodges said. “So some shoppers were seeing the exchange rate drop and responding one way. Others were looking at relative prices even with the drop.”

The population growth in B.C. and other factors may make the exchange rate a less dominating factor, said James McCafferty, assistant director at CEBR. He lists less crowding and more retail options in Whatcom County as possible reasons Canadians increased their shopping here.

“I would argue the exchange rate is a factor in creating the perception of value, but through the years it has become less and the crowding, options and retail pricing have become a much more significant driver of the perceived value,” McCafferty said.

One habit that is increasingly getting Canadians to cross the border is mail pickup. When ordering online on websites like Amazon.com, it is generally less expensive to have an online order delivered in the U.S. That’s led to a proliferation of mail delivery services in border communities like Blaine, Point Roberts and Sumas.

According to the February 2014 survey, 6.8 percent said they were crossing the border to pick up mail, up from 2.4 percent in February 2008.

The survey also shows a high percentage of people pay attention to the border wait time signs. According to the survey of travelers at the Peace Arch crossing, 76.3 percent either regularly or sometimes used the signs to make border crossing decisions based on wait times in July 2013, while 65.8 percent did in February 2014.

The NEXUS program, which helps travelers more quickly cross the border, continues to grow, according to the survey. More than 30 percent of vehicles cross the border through the NEXUS lane, but Conroy noted there is room for improvement. According to the survey, 41 percent of winter travelers cross the border more than eight times a year without a NEXUS card.

“Those travelers would save significant time if they had a NEXUS card,” he said.

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