Confessions of a Cross-Border Shopper
Speaker's Corner: What's the thrill of buying socks and parmesan-flavored Goldfish crackers in Syracuse, New York? Eva Holland took advantage of the surging Canadian dollar and hit the road to find out.
12.12.07 | 1:13 PM ET
On a Friday afternoon in late September, the Canadian dollar closed above its American counterpart for the first time in 30 years. The next morning I packed my passport, a credit card and some greenbacks I’d picked up at a Forex, and jumped in a friend’s car. We headed from from my home in Ottawa, over the Saint Lawrence River to New York and my first ever cross-border shopping experience.
The expedition wasn’t actually linked to our surging loonie, although that was certainly a perk. In fact, the trip was months in the planning—and years overdue. The cross-border shopping road trip is a rite of passage where I grew up, as integral to the south eastern Ontario high school experience as a young New Englander’s visit to the strip clubs of Montreal, a teenage Californian’s escape to the forbidden bars of Tijuana, the middle-aged German expat’s visa run from Phuket to the Burmese border, or even, here in the era of the low-cost transatlantic carrier, the young professional Londoner’s hop across the pond to that ultimate shopping destination, New York City. All my friends had been making retail therapy trips south of the border for years—for many, it was practically their first act after passing their driver’s test—but somehow I’d always missed out on the fun.
Some Americans might be surprised by the steady flow of Canadian pilgrims to places like Syracuse, New York. The ‘Cuse, after all, is hardly a cultural mecca. But what it lacks in tourist attractions, it makes up for in shopping centers. And growing up on a steady diet of Seventeen and YM, I learned quickly that I didn’t need to make it to Fifth Avenue to score the coolest clothes. All I needed was your basic all-American mall.
I was filled with excitement as we pulled up to the border post: that same cocktail of good and bad nerves that I’ve felt at every check-in, security point and customs desk that I’ve ever lined up for. I knew that everything on the other side, no matter how familiar it might look at times, would be fundamentally, unalterably different. Everybody always said that the American stores had things that you couldn’t get on the Canadian side: new patterns, more colors, different designs—and that, I thought, was a nice metaphor for the whole act of traveling someplace new.
We handed over our passports and answered a battery of questions. Moments later we were free: the provincial highway became the interstate, the signage shifted from kilometers to miles, and we picked up speed for the final stretch to Syracuse.
The next day we hit every shoe store in the mall. We stopped for chai lattes at Starbucks, and strolled through the mall with our white and green coffee cups feeling, as we never had while doing the same at home, as though we were participants in an American cultural tradition of sorts. One of my friends, who was training for a marathon, popped into a sporting goods outlet to pick up some energy gels that aren’t available in Canada. Then we turned to the clothing stores, and I saw that all the rumors were true. “You can’t get that hoodie in that shade of green back home!” I thought as I wandered along the racks and racks of clothes. Everywhere we went, I suppressed the urge to ask—in the same way so many American tourists back home who had offered me greenbacks over the years—if the cashier would accept Canadian dollars. “You can keep the difference,” I imagined saying, with a smirk.
Finally it was time for our last stop: Target. I must have wandered those sterile, glowing-white-tiled aisles for two hours or more. When we left, we were carrying a Nintendo Wii, a toaster oven, two bags of parmesan-flavored (parmesan-flavored!) Goldfish crackers, 10 pairs of socks and a glow-in-the-dark skeleton costume designed for a small lapdog. It wasn’t quite everything I’d always dreamed of, but by virtue of being on foreign soil it was still, I was certain, far more stimulating than my local department store could ever be.
And that, of course, is the key to the appeal of cross-border shopping. Something about the act of removing ourselves from our homes—and not just our home cities, but the actual act of crossing a border—makes us open our eyes and ears to the everyday life around us, and something as mundane as a trip to an outlet mall becomes an immersion in the exotic. Like the smell of an alley in Delhi, or the taste of zucchini flowers in Rome, my trip to Syracuse was filled with brighter colors, more interesting textures, more memorable patterns, than anything I had ever noticed at home.
That’s why, I’m sure, no matter how the dollars fluctuate, regardless of new security arrangements at the border, even if Target were to open a store in every major Canadian city—the shopping pilgrimages would continue. Not only here, but across borders around the world. Because, to put a retail twist on an old saying, the Goldfish crackers are more golden on the other side.