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Cross-border shopping and the loonie: Not what it used to be
by Francine Roy *
As the Canadian dollar approached and especially after it surpassed parity with the US greenback, stories have proliferated about Canadians spending their stronger loonies en masse in US stores. This paper examines whether cross-border shopping has actually taken flight with the loonie, as well as the impact on other travel flows.
Whether measured by the number of same-day auto trips across the US border or the average amount spent on these trips or online shopping, the recent increases have been minimal or, outside of Ontario, insignificant relative to retail sales. Today’s cross-border shopping volumes pale by comparison with the phenomenon observed during the late 1980s when the exchange rate also was rising. The close relationship between the exchange rate and cross-border shopping from 1986 to 2001 weakened substantially after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as border security tightened and has not been re-established since. A relatively small rise in the Canada / US exchange rate in the late 1980s and early 1990s provoked a huge increase in same-day auto trips to the US: since 2002, the largest appreciation of the exchange rate ever has accompanied a relatively small rise in same-day auto trips.
Often overlooked in the hype about Canadians flocking in droves to shop in the US is that the Canadian dollar’s record rise has had a significant impact on other travel flows. Cross-border shopping by Americans in Canada has tumbled almost 50% or 11.3 million trips since the loonie began its rise in 2003 (far more than the 2.2 million increase in same-day auto trips to the US by Canadians). US overnight visits to Canada also have fallen. This drop in visits from Americans has been partly offset by increasing numbers of visitors from overseas. As well, armed with rising incomes and their more powerful loonies, Canadians are traveling overseas more often.
Regionally, there are important differences in the trend of same-day auto trips. Within the minimal increase in same-day auto trips to the US, the rise has been concentrated through border posts in Ontario. In addition, Ontario has borne the brunt of the steep slide in trips here by Americans. Most other provinces have been much less affected, partly reflecting their longer distance to the US than Ontario’s major cities at a time of steep increases in the price of gasoline.
Cross-border shopping by Canadians in the United States
From 1986 to the third quarter of 2001, same-day auto trips by Canadians to the US moved closely with the exchange rate (Figure 1). Between 1986 and 1991, when the Canadian dollar rose 21%, Canadians flooded south of the border, with the number of same-day auto trips more than doubling. When the loonie again began to depreciate after 1992, all trips to the US fell 55% to 34.6 million by 2002. This drop was driven by fewer same-day auto trips (the commonly-used measure of cross-border shopping trips, although some of these trips reflect other reasons such as commuting or visiting friends and relatives). Shopping trips could also last more then a day or use transportation other than an auto (buses are popular, for example).
However, the close relationship between the exchange rate and cross-border shopping by Canadians changed after 2001. As the loonie began its rapid ascent, for the first time in 20 years same-day auto trips by Canadians in the US did not rise in lock step. This disconnect occurred even though the recent rise of the exchange rate has easily surpassed its ascent in the late 1980s.
The propensity of Canadians to make cross-border shopping trips has barely risen between 2002 and 2007. In the first nine months of 2007 there were an average of 1.9 million same-day auto trips a month, compared with 1.7 million in 2002 and their all-time high in 1991 of 4.9 million (monthly average). By comparison, the Canadian dollar jumped 44% between 2002 and October 2007.
The most recent data show a slight pick-up in same-day auto trips to an average of 2.018 million a month during the third quarter of 2007. This is a 4.1% increase from 1.938 million trips in the summer of 2006, even as the dollar jumped 7.9% over the same period.
Much of the recent monthly growth of same-day auto trips represents a rebound from a sharp decline last winter. When a cold snap hit in January and February just as the US introduced new passport regulation on arrivals by plane (which may have confused travelers by auto), same-day auto trips plunged 11.1%: a slow recovery since left them in September only 2.5% ahead of their level in December 2006, despite the sharp rise of the dollar this year. Including all trips to the US (not just same-day) does not materially alter this conclusion (Figure 2).
It is instructive to look at the number of trips relative to the total population in Canada. This takes into account population growth over the long-term. The number of same-day auto trips per capita shows that the trend has barely kept up with population growth. The equivalent of 5.9% of the Canadian population made same-day auto trips to the US each month in 2007, up less than half a point in five years from 5.5% in 2002 (figure 3). The rate in 2002 itself was the lowest on record in 35 years. The number of same-day auto trips to the US hit a peak equal to 17.6% of the population in 1991. The clear implication is that the cross-border shopping phenomenon is one-third of its peak in the 1990s. Besides tighter border security, other factors may have dampened the enthusiasm of Canadians for traveling to the US, including an older population, the growth of ‘big box’ chains in Canada and a stronger economy than in the 1980s and 1990s.
While Canadians are not crossing the border in significantly greater numbers, is it possible they are spending more on each trip? The data suggest that this is not the case. Average spending per same-day auto trip has fallen slightly (4%), from $52 a trip in 2003 to $50 last year.1
Nor have Canadians shifted markedly from cross-border auto trips to the US to on-line shopping there. Statistics Canada tracks shipments to Canada by public and private sector couriers, the dominant route to receive a product ordered online, with a content worth less than $1,6002 (although they do not separate business and consumer demand). This data shows a steady increase in shipping since 1995 of $300 million a year on average (with growth pausing between 2001 and 2003). Rather than showing an exceptionally strong increase in 2007, growth has been below-average.
These increases in online purchases are small compared with the $127 billion increase in the volume of consumer spending in Canada between 2002 and 2007. By comparison, the peak of the cross-border shopping phenomenon in 1991 contributed to an outright drop of $7 billion in the volume of consumer spending (the decrease also reflected recession as well as the introduction of the GST). Personal expenditure began to recover in 1992, aided by a lower dollar.
Vehicle purchases in the US are the best example of Canadians buying more from across the border as the loonie rose. The value of new and used car and truck imports by persons (not manufacturers or dealers) from the US approached the $1 billion mark in 2007 (at annual rates), five times its 2002 value as the number rose to an annual rate of 60,000 units so far this year.3 While this makes vehicles the fastest-growing segment of cross-border shopping, the dollar amount still represents less than 2% of the vehicles purchased by Canadians (the split between consumers and business is not precisely known).
Ontario more affected than other provinces
By region, Ontario was disproportionately affected by cross-border shopping. By itself, Ontario accounts for the largest part (79%) of the small increase in same-day auto trips by all Canadians since 2002. This partly reflects the short distance between major cities in Ontario and the US.
However, the direct and indirect cost of trips across the border (which include gasoline consumption and waits at the border crossing) appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of people crossing the border from Ontario going to the US compared with the boom in the 1990s. Between 1986 and 1992, same-day auto trips across the border from Ontario to the US soared 243% from an average of 874,000 trips a month to 2.1 million. From 2002 thru the first nine months of 2007, such trips through Ontario have risen only 15.5%, from an average of 951,100 trips a month to 1.1 million. Relative to Ontario’s population, same-day auto trips to the US in September are still among the lowest in the last 25 years.
The remainder of the small increase in cross-border shopping by Canadians since 2002 has gone mostly through New Brunswick. Cross-border shopping trips through New Brunswick rose every year since 2002, except for a dip in 2007 which may reflect the high price of gasoline.
There has been almost no change recently in same-day auto trips through Quebec and western Canada. Cross-border shopping has never really been significant for the prairie provinces, partly because their large cities are not close to the US (a deterrent compounded by high gas prices). Same-day auto trips across the border from BC have edged up 14.5% since 2002, but remain only one-quarter of their peak level in 1991 and 40% below their level in 1986 (when the dollar was worth only US72 cents). Same-day auto trips from BC have fallen by 125,000 to date in 2007, partly because gas prices jumped more in western Canada so far this year than in the east. Overall, there are few signs that the rising loonie has had an important impact on western Canadians shopping in the US.
In 2007, 73% of travelers leaving Quebec went to the US, the lowest proportion compared to other regions in Canada. Moreover, this share has been falling steadily since hitting 93% at the height of the cross-border shopping craze in 1991. In 2007, 58,100 fewer Canadians returned from same-day auto trips to the US through Quebec than in 2006. Same-day auto trips are not as significant from Quebec as elsewhere, accounting for only 10% of such trips by Canadians, well below its share of the Canadian population.
Less shopping by Americans in Canada
The greatest effect of the rising loonie on cross-border trips has been discouraging Americans from visiting Canada. Same-day auto trips by Americans to Canada have tumbled by nearly a half, from 22.8 million in 2002 to an annual rate of 11.5 million in 2007. This drop of 11.3 million trips dwarfs the much-publicized 2.2 million increase in same-day trips by Canadians to the US.
Travel flows by origin and destination
Same-day auto trips accounted for only 45% of all trips by Americans to Canada so far in 2007. This is down from 56% five years earlier and their peak of around 70% early in the 1980s (when a doubling of gas prices in the US drove motorists to fill up in Canada where prices were lower). The September 11 attacks temporarily aggravated the slide in trips by Americans, but the stronger dollar and high gas prices appear to have been the driving factors behind the long-term downward trend (Figure 5), along with tighter border security.
Not only are fewer Americans coming to shop in Canada, but they are spending less per same-day trip ($59 in 2006 versus $62 in 2003). In dollar terms, cross-border shopping by Americans in Canada has fallen from $1.4 billion in 2003 to $0.9 billion, an insignificant 0.1% of the over $330 billion of retail sales in Canada, spread out over three years.
Just as travel across the border from Ontario dominates same-day auto trips by Canadians in the US, it receives the bulk of Americans shopping in Canada. This in not surprising in light of the concentration of the US population near Ontario’s borders.
As such, Ontario has borne the brunt of the recent drop in American shoppers. Just between September 2001 and 2004, Ontario absorbed 80% of the drop in same-day travel from the US. This share has fallen since 2004, as the rate of decline of American shoppers has slowed from 6.2 million less visits between 2001 and 2004 to 4.7 million less visits between 2004 and 2007. Still, the overall impact of the drop in US shoppers in Ontario since 2000 has been to reverse the gains in all types of travelers arriving in Ontario over the previous 35 years from around the world. Statistics Canada has not recorded so few foreign arrivals in Ontario since records began in 1972, even during the oil shocks of the 1970s. As a result, net travel outflows from Ontario have widened to 8.3 million visits in 2007, mostly as a result of 6.6 million fewer foreign visits to Ontario, mainly from the US.
Historically, the preference of Americans for travel in Ontario has given this province the only net inflow of any region of arrivals from abroad between 1972 and 2004 (outside of the burst of cross-border shopping by Ontarians from 1989 to 1992). The recent drop is an important change for Ontario.
British Columbia saw a decrease of 900,000 same-day auto trips from the US between 2002 and 2007. Still, this was far less than Ontario’s loss of 8.8 million trips. The impact on BC of cross-border shopping also is less because fewer than one in four American visitors come for less than a day, a share which has been dropping steadily since 2000.
Quebec is probably less affected than Ontario and the West by the exchange rate and cross-border shopping because it receives the smallest share of travelers across the border from the US. Still, Quebec also has seen fewer same-day auto trips through the US in recent years, down to an annual rate of 2.5 million so far in 2007 versus 15.1 million in Ontario and 5.1 million in BC. Most American visitors crossing the border to Quebec stay for more than one day, reflecting the relatively longer distance from the northeastern US to Quebec City and Montreal than to Windsor, Toronto or Ottawa. As a result, higher gasoline prices seem to have played a larger role in trips to Quebec than Ontario: most of Quebec’s drop in cross-border visits occurred after 2004, while Ontario bore the brunt from 2001 to 2004 when both the exchange rate and gas prices were lower.
The weakness in cross-border shopping by Americans has not accompanied a sharp decline in the net inflow of travelers from abroad. As the next section will show, this is because the number of American visitors staying for longer periods has not been as hard hit, while visitors from overseas continue to come to Canada in growing numbers. Together with growing domestic tourism by Canadians, this has kept Canada’s tourism industry growing in 2007, after gains of about 7% in each of the previous three years.4
The drop in travelers from the US has been partly offset by an increase in overseas visitors to Canada in recent years. They now arrive the most in British Columbia and the prairie provinces. In 1991, overseas travelers arriving in Ontario outnumbered those in western Canada by a ratio of 2 to 1: by 2007, western Canada had become their leading arrival point for only the second time on record back to 19725 (this also occurred in 2003 due to the SARS outbreak which was centred in Toronto).
The number of all travelers to Canada rose by 1.3 million to BC and by 200,000 to the prairies between 1992 and 2007, even as it declined by 5.1 million to the rest of the country. While travel to the west did slow early in the 2000s due to a number of short-term factors6, it has recovered sufficiently since 2003 to offset the negative impact of fewer travelers from the US. Western Canada overall posted a net outflow of nearly 2 million visits in 2007, well below the net outflow of 13 million in 1992 (inflows and outflows were briefly in balance just before the September 11 attacks).
Like British Columbia, Quebec has received more overseas visitors in recent years, helping to offset the drop in US visitors. Overseas visits are on pace for a record in 2007, and have risen by nearly a third from their low in 2003. More Europeans have entered Quebec this summer than in 2006, partly reflecting a slight appreciation of the euro against the loonie. However, the net outflow of overseas travelers from Quebec is the highest since 1972.
Canadians are traveling more to overseas destinations as their wealth rises. These trips hit a rate of 7.2 million so far in 2007, nearly three times their level in 1991 and double their level of just five years ago. Canadians share this taste for travel to more exotic places with most of the world’s population, as global travel flows have risen sharply since the early 1990s7 and globalisation has spread. Departures for overseas travel have grown the most from Ontario and Quebec, but there have been large increases from all regions.
The record appreciation of the Canadian dollar since 2002 has accompanied only a modest increase in same-day auto trips by Canadians to the US. While the increases in overnight visits and other types of purchases in the US (online or vehicle purchases) has risen slightly faster, the overall impact relative to consumer spending in Canada is well below 1%. However, there are important regional differences in these results, with Ontario standing out from the rest of the country.
Travel flows by origin and destination, Atlantic Provinces
Travel flows by origin and destination, Quebec
Travel flows by origin and destination, Ontario
Travel flows by origin and destination, Prairies
Travel flows by origin and destination, British Columbia