Is cross-border shopping worth it?

I spent the day last Saturday with three of my favourite people doing one of my favourite things – cross-border shopping! Growing up in south-western Ontario, cross-border shopping was always one of my favourite back-to-school rituals. We would usually go to Michigan – Port Huron, Troy, or the Birch Run Premium Outlets and sometimes to Niagara Falls NY. The value of the Canadian dollar compared the U.S. in the 1980’s was about the same as it is today, but back then the thrill of back-to-school shopping in the U.S. was going to stores that we didn’t have in Canada at the time (like The Gap and Old Navy as well as the big U.S. Department Stores such as Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and J.C. Penny). The back-to-school sales in the U.S. were also a lot better. However, today, with our own outlets malls (including most large U.S. retailers), access to online shopping 24 hours a day, U.S. mailboxes and Amazon Prime, you might wonder if cross-border shopping still worth it?

For me, cross-border shopping is about the experience. It’s about a fun road trip with your bestie, hubby, or kiddos and still scoring some pretty great deals. If you’re up for being away an entire weekend, it’s about fun family time or girl time and having one last summer weekend away before back-to-school.

Whenever I shop with my friend Patty, one of our favourite retail destinations in the U.S. is Kohl’s. Kohl’s is a great place for kids clothing, some women’s and men’s brands, linens, housewares and seasonal decor. For kids, they carry brands such as Carter’s/OshKosh, Chaps, Adidas, Nike, Disney and Under Armor, as well as others – including a couple of their own house brands. Kohl’s regularly has pretty decent sales, and they have regular promotions (pretty much every other weekend) that if you use your Kohl’s charge card, you can save an additional 20-30% off. On top of that, you can sometimes earn $10 Kohl’s cash for every $50 spent (to be used a later date with no minimum purchase required).

Kohl's store in Port Huron, Michigan
Kohl’s store, Port Huron, Michigan

As a Canadian, you can open a Kohl’s charge in-store and get approved on the spot. However, whenever you use your Kohl’s card, make sure to pay it off right away in the store as otherwise it’s a pain to pay later on. Unfortunately, your Kohl’s account can’t be paid online from a Canadian bank account and it will cost you more to send a cheque by mail than to pay it immediately in-store.

Having a Kohl’s charge is definitely worth it in order to receive the additional 20-30% off coupons. For example, these are some of the great deals I scored this past weekend.

  • Boys Chaps golf shirt – regularly $20 on sale for $18, plus an additional 30% off for $12.59 USD. I got an even better deal on a boys white Chaps long sleeve dress shirt – regularly $30 for $12.59 USD.
  • Girls Adidas fashion jacket – regularly $45 on sale for $33.75. Not the best deal when you convert to Canadian dollars, but my daughter was in love with it and it’s still a good price for a fall jacket that she will likely wear every day.
  • Women’s Juicy Couture dress – regularly $58 on sale for $22.99 plus an additional 30% off for just $16.09.

In total, I had 11 items for $172.24 USD. I “saved” $232.50 vs. regular prices, and I also earned $30 in Kohl’s cash that I can spend in a couple weeks (either in-store or online), with no minimum purchase required. Overall I was pretty happy with my purchases, and what’s more important is the fun had and memories made with my friend and our daughters.

Kohl's receipt with savings

Part of our cross-boarding shopping ritual always includes either lunch or dinner at one of our favourite U.S. restaurants. So, after a quick trip to Target, the girls chose the Olive Garden (no surprise there!).

The Olive Garden in Port Huron, Michigan
The Olive Garden, Port Huron, Michigan

So, was it worth it? Yes! I got some really good deals and we had a great day shopping, laughing and lunching.

First things first, where to go? This is my list of what I consider to be the best places to go cross-border shopping.

  • Birch Run Premium Outlets, Birch Run, Michigan – I mostly like Birch Run because it makes for a great weekend away in nearby Frankenmuth (see my Frankenmuth post). It’s a large outlet mall with some great stores including the hard to find Pottery Barn/Williams Sonoma outlet.
  • Fashion Outlets, Niagara Falls, NY – the closest cross-border shopping to home, and lots of great stores to choose from – including my favourites (Ann Taylor, J.Crew, Kate Spade, etc.)
  • Walden Galleria, Buffalo, NY – large mall with great stores including Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and great restaurant options (Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang, Melting Pot, etc). I love department store shopping – especially for special occasion dress and shoe shopping. A great sale at a department store is often better than outlet mall shopping and the return policies are usually better.
  • Great Lakes Crossing, Auburn Hills, Michigan – a large indoor outlet mall with Legoland, Target and lots of hotel and restaurant options close by.
  • Somerset Collection, Troy, Michigan – The Somerset Collection is a large mall with both “regular” and high-end stores (think Gucci, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton) and both a Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus. It’s great for department store shopping and lots of really good restaurant options too – like California Pizza Kitchen and Capital Grille.
  • Grove City Premium Outlets – Grove City is about 4 hours from Oakville. The Premium Outlet mall has all the usual outlet stores – plus there is no sales tax in Pennsylvania!
  • Kohl’s or Target (anywhere!) – the closest Kohl’s location is in North Amherst, NY on Niagara Falls Blvd and there is a Target store right by the Fashion Outlets in Niagara Falls, NY.

More cross-border shopping tips!

  • If you are going outlet shopping, most outlet malls have a “savings passport” or coupon book available at customer service. Many of these require a CAA/AAA membership and have valuable coupons (10-20% off at most stores). They’re not deep discounts but help take the sting out of the exchange rate! Note – these savings books are also available with your CAA membership at Canadian outlets malls (including Milton and Niagara Falls).
  • Check for coupons and sign up for mailing lists for the stores you are planning to visit – again, even a 10-15% discount makes the exchange rate better.
  • To get the most out of cross-border shopping, try to hit stores we don’t have at home. Unless you are looking at clearance items, the deals at Banana Republic and Old Navy are usually just as good in Canada when you factor in the exchange rate.
  • If you are crossing the border from the GTA, check the border wait times before you go, or have your passenger do this en route. You have a few options between Queenston-Lewiston, the Rainbow Bridge and the Peace Bridge (depending on where you are going) and this can save time on your trip.
  • Stay within your personal exemption amount to avoid paying duty. This is $200 per person after 24 hours and $800 after 48 hours. Note there is $0 allowed for a same-day shopping trip. However, it’s best to always tell the truth and hope that you don’t have to pay duty (from my own personal experience it’s about a 50/50 chance but rarely have I had to pay if I spent under $200). Duty and taxes can be expensive on top of the exchange rate so plan ahead and decide how much you are going to spend assuming you might have to pay.
  • Fill up on gas. Even with the exchange rate, gas is still cheaper in the U.S. For example, at $2.82 USD/gallon, this works out to $0.74 USD/Litre. Based on today’s exchange rate, $0.74 USD is approximately $1.00 Canadian. So… depending on the price of gas at home, you can probably save 10-25 cents/litre. And, if you get stuck trying to pay at the pump because you’ve been asked for your zip code, just enter the 3 numbers of your postal code followed by “00”. So, if your postal code is L6M 1R4, you would enter 61400. It works and you can avoid going into a sketchy gas station store! Before I knew this, I used to always try 90210 as it was the only zip code I could think of (it never worked!)

So, again… is cross-border shopping worth it? It’s up to you. If you have fun and get a few deals, I say it is!

Published by PJ

Full-time working mom who enjoys planning fun family road trips and vacations in my spare time.

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