Originally created 09/06/98

Bargains abound in Canada



TRAIL, British Columbia -- Can't afford the $112 it costs to buy a pair of Nike Air Max Triad shoes and the Spice Girls' latest CD?

Head to Canada, where those same two items would cost just $81 in U.S. currency.

With the Canadian dollar hovering at its lowest levels ever -- about $1.50 Canadian for every U.S. dollar bill -- Americans are flocking across the border in search of bargains.

"It's such a good deal for you guys right now," said Krista Grewcock, a gas station attendant in this Canadian border town about 120 miles north of Spokane, Wash.

But with prices and taxes here generally higher to start with, is Canada really a shopping paradise?

Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, according to an informal, one-man survey for The Associated Press.

Items like diapers, CDs, books and television sets were cheaper. Beer, milk and Levi jeans were not.

A list of 24 items or services cost the equivalent of $3,199 in U.S. dollars if purchased in Canada, and $3,039 if purchased in Spokane -- a savings of $160, or about 5 percent.

But individual bargains abound.

The Spice Girls' Spiceworld CD, for example, cost $13.49 in U.S. currency here, but $20.52 in the United States.

The Nike Air Max Triads were an even better deal, costing $67.60 in U.S. money in Canada, and $91.87 in the United States.

The survey began with a two-hour drive to the Waneta Plaza mall in Trail, a scenic mill town on the Columbia River with a few thousand residents.

Regular prices for the two dozen listed items were recorded at national chain stores in the shopping center. The intent was to replicate a family outing to Canada, and not necessarily to hunt down the lowest or average price for each item.

The next day, the same items were priced at the Northtown mall in Spokane.

Most consumer goods do cost more here. Bargain hunters must also factor in 14 percent sales taxes, although Americans can get a rebate on a portion of the 7 percent federal sales tax for some items.

Then there's the culture shock.

The gas pump at the Mohawk station offered fuel at 53.8 cents per liter, a puzzler for the metrically challenged.

"There are 4.5 liters per gallon," said Grewcock, who deals with befuddled Americans several times a day.

That meant it cost $2.42 per gallon to fill the tank -- in Canadian dollars. That translates to $1.59 U.S. -- still much higher than the $1.15 per gallon it cost to buy gas in Spokane.

Some of the best deals for Americans are in music and videos.

At Zellers, a Canadian discount chain, a copy of the Nintendo 64 game 007 GoldenEye cost $37, less than half the $75 charged in Spokane. The Nintendo machine itself cost $150, compared to $162 in Spokane.

The soundtrack to the movie Titanic, featuring Canadian singer Celine Dion, cost $17 in Trail and $21 in the Spokane.

The Canadian dollar has been weak for months because of the Asian financial crisis. In early 1997, it was worth nearly 75 U.S. cents, but its value plunged below 69 cents in January. Over the summer, it fell to about 66 cents U.S. One U.S. dollar was valued at approximately $1.50 in Canadian currency.

The exchange rate has U.S. residents streaming north, while the flood of southbound Canadian shoppers have slowed to a trickle.

The Canadian Tourism Commission reported that six million Americans had made overnight trips to Canada in the first half of 1998 -- 500,000 more than during the same period last year.

Americans who shop in Canada should remember the United States places limits on the amount of liquor and cigarettes, and on the total value of goods, that can be brought into the country. After that, taxes are imposed, with different rates for different products.

And some products just aren't allowed.

"The main draw to my store in particular is Cuban cigars," which cannot be imported to the United States, said Anna Olmsted, owner of Shefield Gourmet, a coffee and tobacco store in Trail.