The fierce competition for the Canadian shopping dollar just across the border in Washington state has spawned an idea to steer the sometimes-myopic Canuck shoppers away from malls and big-box stores, to the mom-and-pop shops.
About 30,000 copies of "The Crossing Guide" magazine, which is currently under design, will be distributed throughout Metro Vancouver, BC Ferries' terminals on the mainland and border crossings in early January, said Marisa Papetti, the magazine's owner and publisher.
But not everybody's excited about the prospect about more U.S. businesses trying to lure Canadians south of the border.
"It's super competitive," said Anita Huberman, the CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, about the current business environment.
Six businesses in Surrey's south end closed recently because of a drop in foot traffic, and any increase in U.S. advertising will only compromise others, she said.
The shuttered businesses, said Huberman, included well-known clothing and electronics retailers and were located in a 60-store residential-commercial development featuring brand-name outlet
stores only a few kilometres north of the border.
"It's not that it's a no-win situation, it's just that businesses need to think creatively around their different products or services that they're selling and how to capture markets not only locally but also in other markets," Huberman said.
Huge numbers heading south
Statistics provided by the Canada Border Services Agency suggest Canadians may be making millions of same-day return visits to the U.S. each quarter.
From April to June of this year, almost four million people passed through the five ports of entry in the Pacific Highway District, followed by 4.6 million between July and September.
'You'll get someone that will say, 'Hey, are there any other good places to eat around here besides like Applebee's or Olive Garden, are there any other good restaurants you can talk about?’ - Marisa Papetti, magazine publisher
The district stretches between Abbotsford and Surrey's Peace Arch crossing, covering the Fraser Valley and Metro Vancouver.
A survey by the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University found 30.5 per cent of motorists who were interviewed in July 2013 while crossing the border were heading south to shop.
Bill Gorman, interim executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Canadian consumers are important to local economies all the way down the Interstate 5 corridor to the city of Marysville, about 120 kilometres from the Canadian border.
In fact, local businesses have traditionally found it easier to attract Canadians from B.C. than shoppers from their own state.
"It's always been a challenge for Whatcom County or Bellingham to attract visitors from the Central Puget Sound to come north," he said, noting the area is geographically part of B.C.'s Fraser River Valley system.
Gorman said the university also found 72 per cent of the license plates in the local Cosco parking lot during the last Easter long weekend were from Canada, and a local mall had similar numbers.
Papetti said she got the idea to launch the magazine because Canadians shopping near one major retailer were constantly stopping her and others locals, asking for directions to the big-box stores, but they weren't asking for directions to the city's downtown where many small businesses are located.
"Every now and then you'll get someone that will say, 'Hey, are there any other good places to eat around here besides like Applebee's or Olive Garden, are there any other good restaurants you can talk about?
She said many local businesses haven't advertised north of the border in the past over concerns about advertising costs and distribution. They've also been inundated with choices that range from Punjabi radio stations to metropolitan and community papers."It's kind of that consistent question where you're thinking, 'OK, they're obviously not getting any good information on all the great places to go, so let's provide them with kind of that neighbourly local view on other things to do."'
"It's hard to focus on where to spend your money," she said, "and with mom-and-pop businesses having such small ad budgets, and then also having to advertise here, that makes it tricky."
Papetti said she thinks one-third of Canadian visitors will continue to shop at the big-box stores, but the other two-thirds are a little more adventurous and will be willing to check out other options.
Anna Adams who owns the Old World Deli with her husband Christos said Canadians already visit her downtown shop, which has developed its clientele mainly through its website and by word of mouth.
But she said she feels like her business has exhausted advertising opportunities in the local market, adding she will be buying space in the new publication.
"It will be interesting to see what the turnout is," she said.
South of the Fraser is key
If current research holds true, most of the shopping dollar comes from B.C. communities south of the Fraser River.
More than half of the Canadians who already make same-day trips into the state live within about 20 kilometres of the border, said prof. Keith Head of UBC's Sauder School of Business.
'You have to have a pretty low valuation of your time before it makes actual economic sense to be driving down there.' - Keith Head, UBC School of Business
Luring Canadians south, he added, is a relatively high exchange rate, which has varied between $0.63 and $1.07 in the last few decades.
Still, Head said most Vancouver residents, like those living in Kitsilano, are too far from the border and have to drive through Richmond and the George Massey Tunnel before they even reach the long lineups.
"You have to have a pretty low valuation of your time before it makes actual economic sense to be driving down there," he said.
Regardless, the magazine is nearing its final deadline.
Papetti said the first issue will be published online Boxing Day, and its first print edition will be distributed Jan. 9, 2014.