British Columbia

Washington cross-border mailbox businesses prepare to sink or swim as travel ban continues

Mailbox services across the B.C. border in Washington are grappling with growing piles of packages and no certainty as to when their customers will be able to cross the border to pick them up and pay for them.

Businesses catering to B.C. customers say packages are piling up

Brant Baron, owner of Mail Boxes International in Blaine, Wash., says his store is filled to the brim with packages his Canadian customers can't pick up. (Submitted by Brant Baron)

At least once a month Jeff Lewis used to make the 20-minute drive from his home in Surrey, B.C., to pick up packages he had sent to a mailbox service in Blaine, Wash. 

Like many B.C. residents who live near the border, Lewis, 64, used the service to buy U.S. goods not available in Canada or to save on shipping. But Lewis hasn't been to Blaine since the border closed to non-essential traffic months ago. 

"It makes me feel like I'm trapped," he said, adding he would like to see exemptions for Canadians making quick trips into the U.S. 

Many of the businesses in border towns like Blaine, Sumas and Point Roberts cater to Canadians who take advantage of cheaper goods or services there. The border closure has left most of those businesses struggling to survive.

For the many mailbox services in those towns, owners are grappling with growing piles of packages and no certainty as to when their customers will be able to cross the border to pick them up. The service costs a small fee — usually under $5 US — per package. So no pickups means no income for business owners. 

As the ban on non-essential travel continues, some mailbox service business owners wonder if they'll survive without customers during the normally lucrative Christmas season. Others are finding creative ways around the problem.

New shipments offered

Brant Baron, owner of the Mail Boxes International store in Blaine, thinks he may have come up with one solution to bring in more income and help his customers reunite with their stranded packages. 

"As the closure kind of wore on, people kept asking us, 'Hey, how can we get our packages?' " Baron said. 

He has partnered with a depot in Langley to be able to combine several customers' packages in one shipment across the border. The service doesn't include textiles like clothes because of more complicated regulations.

Brant Baron says he feels confident that he'll be able to weather the storm until the border reopens. (Submitted by Brant Baron)

Each shipment costs customers a $35 US fee, plus $5.50 US per package — about a third, he says, of what they would pay a courier like FedEx because the brokerage, clearance and other fees are split between several people. 

Normally, it would cost $2.75 US to pick up a package from Baron's store. Ask someone like Lewis in Surrey, and there's no way the extra cost is worth it. 

But Baron says he's already sent five shipments to Canada and has had a lot of inquiries from interested customers. 

'Some things were silly'

Victoria resident Sheila McCarthy is one of them.

McCarthy, 56, used to pick up deliveries in Blaine about six times a year, making a little holiday out of the trip to visit friends on the mainland and shop along the way. 

She has 13 packages waiting for her at Mail Boxes International — things like shoes, tweezers and kitchen scissors she meant to pick up in February but then didn't because of the pandemic. 

The Peace Arch international Canadian border crossing has been closed since March because of the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Some things were silly," she said. "Some things I can only get in the States."

McCarthy has paid nearly $200 CAD to have the packages shipped to Langley, and then onwards to Victoria. 

Although she says she's grateful for the new service, McCarthy says she has not shipped any more goods to Blaine. She doesn't intend to start up again until it's safe for her to go across the border and pick up her packages herself. 

'It's crazy'

Other customers continue to send deliveries to places like At the Border Mail, where co-owner Scott Dodd is grappling with ever-growing piles of packages. 

"They're stacked up as high as someone can reach, and they're stacked in the aisles, and they're stacked in the loading bay where we get the deliveries into," Dodd said.

"It's crazy."

These days Dodd's business is only open on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The few customers who can pick up their packages are commercial clients who are allowed go back and forth between Canada and the U.S. 

'Serious conversation' pending

About half of Dodd's annual income comes in the weeks leading up to and during the winter holidays. He's not sure his customers will risk shipping presents if nothing changes by November. 

"If we can't have any money coming in the door, we can't continue to even operate in one day a week, unfortunately," he said.. 

 

Dodd says he's committed to his customers and will ensure they're reunited with their packages no matter what. Like other cross-border mail services, he's not charging them for storage while the border is closed. 

But he's not sure how much longer he can stay afloat with barely any income. 

 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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