Brandy Champion didn't leave anything to chance when she decided on a Black Friday cross-border shopping trip to the United States.
She made a long list of coveted items – children's toys, winter boots, curtains, makeup. She phoned a few friends and invited them along. Then, the Ontario woman booked a U-Haul trailer so they would be able to cart their bounty back over the border.
"The border guard just popped the back of the trailer open and took a quick look," she said in an interview from the American side of Niagara Falls. "Then he told us his wife would be jealous, and we kept driving."
It's the most frenzied display of bargain hunting perhaps in the world. Retailers are bombarding Twitter with #BlackFriday deals, shoppers are meticulously plotting their routes and cross-border guards are poised for America's busiest shopping day of the year.
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By the numbers
Nearly one in five, or 18 per cent of Canadians, plan to shop in the United States this holiday season – up from last year's 13-per-cent level, according to a BMO holiday spending survey.
South of the border, up to 152 million shoppers are expected to visit stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. Its survey shows the portion of people who are "definitely" going shopping has jumped to 33 per cent from 27 per cent last year.
Canadians have good reason to look south. Consumer goods prices are still 11-per-cent higher in Canada than in the U.S., a good-sized gap though less than the 18-per-cent difference seen in April, according to Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney.
For a 24-hour trip, Canadian shoppers can claim up to $50 (Canadian) worth of goods without paying any duties. For a two-day trip, the exemption goes up to $400 worth of goods.
So what happens if, say, a Canadian doesn't declare the prized acquisitions? Border guards can seize them and either keep them permanently or force a penalty to have the items returned. They can also seize the car.
And factor inwait-times at the border. Higher-than-average volumes are expected and some wait times will likely exceed an hour, the Canada Border Services Agency says.
Shopping survival tips
Do your research for shopping through the weekend. Comparison shop ahead of time. Bring the smartphone to get the latest on all the deals.
Plan the route carefully. Check store hours for opening times. To really maximize purchase-to-shopping efficiency, work in teams, with some people combing certain sections and others waiting in line.
Lastly, wear comfortable shoes that will let allow for standing through all-night lineups, sprinting down aisles and running from angry crowds as needed.
Where to go
Where to start? Sales taxes vary by state. Montana and New Hampshire have no sales taxes. New York, North Dakota and Maine have sales taxes that are 5 per cent or less, according to crossbordershopping.ca.
So the currency has fallen 4 per cent over the last month, to about 95 cents (U.S.). And it's too bad Black Friday wasn't in July, when it was 10 cents higher. But – there are still plenty of ways to mentally justify a trip south because of the strong loonie. For one: the Canadian dollar is well above levels of five years ago, when it barely cracked 90 cents.
Even at 95 cents, the currency "will still prompt a lot of cross-border trips by Canadians in the next month," predicts Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns.
Or – don't cross at all!
Border towns like Kingston are starting their own Black Fridays ("same great deals with no hassle!" its Facebook page says). And plenty of retailers in Canada – from Indigo Books to Sears Canada and Wal-Mart Canada – are offering deals of their own in the days ahead.
As the Retail Council of Canada points out, staying in Canada buttresses local economies, keeps tax revenues in the country – and it's a whole lot easier to return goods once you're struck with buyer's remorse.
Meanwhile, back in New York …
Ms. Champion and company, meantime, didn't venture too far across the border, stopping in Niagara Falls, N.Y. They planned to hit a fashion-themed mega-mall at midnight, and then head back to a hotel for the rest of the night before poking around some stores during the day to see how much of her $2,000 she can spend.
They did manage to find a few deals yesterday at the local Wal-Mart, which was open ahead of other regional retailers – Coors Light kegs were $20 (U.S.). They also saw a deal that wasn't available till later in the day, with HP all-in-one printers set to sell for $19.
"We've heard it can get pretty rough," she said as she waited for the fashion outlet to open. "The police are already setting up barricades."