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Canadian shoppers flocking to U.S. in record numbers

It's a fine Canadian tradition that is celebrated multiple times a year: crossing the border to go shopping in the U.S.

And with higher duty-free exemptions for cross-border shoppers in place, Statistics Canada finds we're increasingly doing so and in record numbers. Overnight trips to the U.S. rose 7.5 per cent in June compared to May, to 1.9 million. That's the highest level since 1972, when the agency began keeping records on cross-border jaunts.

That in-turn led a Retail Council of Canada executive to remark that until Ottawa addresses the root causes of higher retail prices in Canada than in the U.S., such as higher tariffs, Canadian retailers remain at a distinct disadvantage. The RCC petitioned the federal government last June to eliminate import tariffs, overhaul the supply management system, and create more regulatory harmonization.

So what items do Canadian shoppers find drastically reduced when they cross the border?

  • Milk: Cross-border shoppers in B.C. are flooding to Washington for dairy products. A four-litre carton of skim milk will cost roughly C$3 at Edaleen Dairy in Washington state, the Vancouver Sun reports. That's a hefty discount compared to the roughly C$5 for the same sized portion here. And there is the added bonus of no sales tax on milk in Washington state.

  • Books and magazines: Canadians have known for years that books and magazines are much cheaper in the U.S., but that doesn't take the sting out of the sticker shock. A paperback copy of "The Hunger Games" will run you around C$9.99 from Amazon.ca while the same book can be purchased for US$5.39 on Amazon.com. Factor in the soaring Canadian dollar and you're likely walking away with the book for less than C$5. And it's the same story for magazines, which are typically priced 17 per cent higher than the same glossy rag in the U.S.

  • Clothing and shoes: Not only are the sale prices better in the U.S., but shoppers can also find regularly-priced clothing at a discount. A pair of 1969 skinny boot jeans from Gap will run you US$69.99 stateside, while Canadians are charged C$79.99 for the exact same pair of jeans. Running shoes may be the worst price gouge, with the average Canadian spending 37 per cent more for the same trainers. The average price of a pair of running shoes in Canada will cost you $145.99, while the average price in the U.S. is $105.99.

  • Electronics: A Nike iPod sensor will run consumers $25 in Canada, while shoppers in the states will pay US$19.00 for the same item. That equates to a price gap of 31 per cent, according to Canada/U.S. Price Gap & Cross Border Shopping report from BMO. A Canon Rebel T2 camera will cost Canadians $529.99 but a quick trip across the border means you can nab the same digital camera for $499.99.

Price comparisons aside, when you do find yourself south of the border try to mind your manners and don't be a so-called "milk piranha" (read: a rude bargain-hunter). Or, maybe you'd prefer to be identified as such. One Vancouver-area company is capitalizing on the insult by way of branding the term to sell it on t-shirts.

Also, it's worthwhile to be in the know with respect to understanding what food, plant, animal, and related products you're allowed to bring back into Canada. Restrictions on what you can bring home (for personal or commercial purposes) do vary and some restrictions vary by province.

If you are planning to drive across the border, it's smart to plan ahead to avoid delays or other unforeseen issues that could arise. The Canadian Auto Association recommends:

*Before heading out, check the border wait times near you via the Canada Border Services Agency website

*Purchase travel insurance even for a short shopping trip across the border. An unexpected trip to the emergency room or a visit to the doctor's office stateside can be a costly affair

  • Carry proper identification for yourself and any children travelling with you

  • Prepare your car, check your vehicle's fluids, and make sure all of your tires are properly inflated and that there are no bulges or bald patches

  • Your kids might laugh uncontrollably at you, but ignore them and bring a paper map with you as a back up to your GPS or mobile device

  • Be prepared to answer questions by Canadian customs officials including declaring your purchases and have the receipts at the ready

And know how much you can spend within a 24-hour period before being subjected to taxation. For 48 hours or more, you can bring back goods, tax and duty-free, worth up to C$800. For 24 hours or more, you can now bring back goods, tax and duty-free, worth up to $200. It might be worthwhile to calculate your purchases before heading home by accessing this Canadian Duty Calculator.