Tale of Two Dollars: Canadians Reap Bargains

The value of the Canadian dollar is now about equal to the U.S. dollar, a change that has touched off a bit of a shopping spree along the international border. Reporter David Sommerstein checks in from a mall in Massena, N.Y., near the St. Lawrence River.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A different boom no less phenomenal for the Canadian dollar. It's been virtually equal with the American dollar this week. The U.S. dollar has been weakening for years compared with certain counterparts, and this creates an opportunity for T.V. comedians.

(Soundbite of TV program "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. TOPHER GRACE (Actor): (As Euro) Dollar, is that you?

Ms. AMY POEHLER (Actor): (As Dollar) Oh, hey, Euro.

Mr. GRACE: (As Euro) Oh, my goodness, Dollar, you look awful.

BLOCK: The Euro reached a new high this week, $1.42 American. "Saturday Night Live" imagined this conversation a couple of years back.

(Soundbite of TV program "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. SETH MYERS (Actor): (As Pound Note) Why, Euro, old boy, is that you?

Mr. GRACE: (As Euro) Mon dieu, Pound Note. I was just talking to our old friend, the Dollar here.

Mr. MYERS: (As Pound Note) Oh, I almost didn't see you there, Dollar. You've shrunk so much.

Ms. POEHLER: (As Dollar) All right. Come on, you guys, leave me alone, would you?

BLOCK: Although weak dollar is good news for U.S. exporters, American goods sell more briskly elsewhere. But there is a certain amount of civic pride wrapped up in the value of a currency. After all, it represents a kind of power. Well, for 30 years, Canada's dollar has been less powerful than ours. It's known as the Loonie because of the bird pictured on one side of the dollar coin. When it reached parity with the U.S. dollar, there was outrage from comedian Stephen Colbert as he held both a dollar bill and a Loonie in hand.

(Soundbite of TV program "The Colbert Report")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): They're saying that this, right here, is no better than this, okay? Which is basically saying that our first president, George Washington, is no better than Canada's first president, this duck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: On the other side of the border, the Loonie's growing strength has been big news, even the source of a sort of Canadian swagger. This year, an executive at Toronto-Dominion Bank suggested maybe there should be unified U.S.-Canadian currency, which prompted disdain from CBC comedian Rick Mercer.

(Soundbite of TV program)

Mr. RICK MERCER (Comedian): The American dollar has been the worst performing currency in the entire world for the last five years, so why not hitch our wagon to it? Because, you know, the only problem with America's $21 trillion unfunded pension liability is we aren't on the hook for it yet. Next up on the list of sound economic advice from TD, we all put our money into a shoebox and set it on fire.

BLOCK: OK. Well, what we can tell you with some authority is that now that the two dollars are just about equal, Canadians are rushing to take advantage.

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Once a week, Rejean Blanchard(ph) and Denise Gonyea(ph) cross the border from Cornwall, Ontario to hunt for deals at the St. Lawrence Centre Mall in Massena, New York. The pair combs through a rack of infant onesies at JCPenney's and they're positively giddy.

So what did you find today? I, you got some…

Ms. REJEAN BLANCHARD (Canada Resident): Oh, swimsuit for the kids, my grandchildren. And…

Ms. DENISE GONYEA: What do you want for three bucks?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BLANCHARD: Yes.

SOMMERSTEIN: Blanchard says with the strong Loonie, she'll shop here even more.

Ms. BLANCHARD: You want to cross because the deals are there. And then…

Ms. GONYEA: You get more.

Ms. BLANCHARD: …it's worthwhile.

SOMMERSTEIN: According to the Bank of Montreal, Canadians pay up to a quarter more for many products in Canada, thanks, in part, to smaller markets and higher taxes.

Ms. BAILEY LE JEA(ph) (Canada Resident): Clothes-wise, shoes-wise, food-wise, toys, diapers, everything.

SOMMERSTEIN: Over at Champs Sports, Bailey Le Jea tries on a pair of shiny, Air Jordan's and whips out a credit card.

Ms. LE JEA: Perfect.

SOMMERSTEIN: Perfect for the size for you?

Ms. LE JEA: Yes.

SOMMERSTEIN: Le Jea is a regular at the mall, too. And now, she says, her money goes further than ever.

Ms. LE JEA: I'm living life large now. It's awesome now, coming here to get some shoes. I was here a couple of weeks ago, bought two pairs of shoes.

SOMMERSTEIN: This is all blissful news for American retailers along the northern border. Crossings are up 50 percent from last year at the Blaine port of entry in Washington State. Malls in Buffalo and Detroit are reporting booming sales. Here in Massena, the St. Lawrence Centre Mall was built to lure shoppers south.

Marketing director Ron Patnode says Centre was even spelled the French way to make Canadians feel comfortable.

Mr. RON PATNODE (Marketing Director, St. Lawrence Centre Mall): Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we have our security go out and they count the cars in the parking lot, which includes, you know, Quebec plates, Ontario plates.

SOMMERSTEIN: Around 2000, the Loonie was only worth about 60 cents. Canadian cars had dipped to just 6 to 8 percent of total traffic. Now, Patnode says, a quarter of the cars in the lot have Canadian plates. The charging Loonie has been bad news for Canadian businesses. American tourists are spending less money in Canada. Canadian exports to the U.S. are also taking a hit.

Ms. SALLY COLLEY (ph) (Canada Resident): You wouldn't believe what I bought.

SOMMERSTEIN: Sally Colley of Cornwall, Ontario says migrating south to shop is irresistible.

Ms. COLLEY: I bought a skirt for $3, a long skirt, and a beautiful pair of white, Capri pants for $3. I mean, what can you do?

SOMMERSTEIN: With Canadian sales slumping, Colley says business owners in her country may have to start crossing the border to hunt for bargains, too.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Northern New York.

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