Crossing the United States border for a shopping spree is a bigger bargain than it has been in 30 years with the loonie now on par with the U.S. dollar, but the same old rules still apply.
“You can safely say it’s a bargain because the cost differential is real,” says Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “Just don’t buy more than $400 worth at a time.”
Canadian consumers have been complaining in recent weeks that Canadian retailers are not marking down the price of goods to reflect the stronger dollar so, if you have a specific item in mind, you’ll get a deal if you buy that same item the next time you visit the U.S.
Books in particular get mentioned a lot. A text book selling for $100 in Canada could be bought for $80 or $75 from the same retail chain south of the border.
However, you can only claim up to $400 worth of goods without paying duty fees, and only if you’ve been in the U.S. for at least 48 hours. The amount goes up to $750 for a stay of seven days or more and either way, only a small amount of alcohol and tobacco products can be included in the exemption.
After that duty applies and when it comes to figuring out how much duty you’re going to have to pay, “there’s no easy answer,” says Chris Williams of the Canada Border Services Agency.
“It’s a very lengthy breakdown depending on the type of item it is, where it was manufactured and a number of other factors.”
Indeed the CBSA keeps a list and you can see it for yourself on the government agency’s website, but be forewarned it contains many thousands of items broken down into every imaginable category.
For example you only pay an eight per cent duty or ‘customs tariff’ on a nuclear reactor, so a $1 billion purchase will cost you can an extra $80 million.
That does not include provincial or harmonized sales tax which will also be applied, so add 14 per cent to the figure and you’re looking at well over $1.2 billion if you’re planning on getting a jump on the provincial government with Point Lepreau II.
More practically, a refrigerator carries the very same eight per cent duty (unless it happens to be a combination gasoline/electricity powered absorption-type refrigerator designed specifically for travel trailers in which case it’s absolutely duty free).
But as to a regular refrigerator, if you’re only stopping at Calais from St. Stephen for the one afternoon to buy a new fridge, if you paid $1,000 for it there, you’ll have paid $1,231.20 for it by the time you get it home.
Some goods are duty-free whether or not you’re travelling in the U.S. and there are some bargains to be found by purchasing on-line or through mail-order.
However, there are some pitfalls of which to be aware.
“I’ll never order anything on-line from the U.S. again,” says one Moncton resident who asked not to be identified.
“I ordered a computer satchel from a company in California for $75 because I saw the same one here for $150, but I didn’t think to ask about any extra fees.”
Those included a small duty charge, but the company added an extra $16 for ‘shipping and handling.’ The satchel was also shipped by courier and that company charged another $45 for what they described as a ‘brokerage fee.’
After the HST was also applied “I ended up paying what I would have paid here.”
Be cautious, advises Cirtwill.
“Shoppers who aren’t might get caught up in the current frenzy and will not save any money,” he says, although on the other hand you can avoid some hidden fees and tariffs by selecting goods only from Canadian distributors while shopping on-line.
No doubt it is a good time to go touring in the U.S. and Christmas shoppers will take advantage of the even exchange and the current price imbalance but, by and large, when buying down south “you’re best off by consuming whatever goods you buy in the U.S. while you’re still down there.”