Luringly, lower loonie looses local largesse

By Meg Olson

With the loonie dangling around seventy cents for months, local businesses are tweaking operations and coming up with strategies to draw their dollar-shy Canadian customers in.

“Our volume is definitely down,” said Snider Vick at the Point Roberts Shell Center, estimating sales are down 25 to 30 percent overall from 2014, a figure that most other business owners echoed.

During January and February, the Shell Center is offering selected items and services for Canadian at par for cash sales to their Shell Fuel Rewards members including coffee roasting, parcel pickup, baking and homemade food. Anyone with an email address can sign up for the rewards program. They can earn cents off the gallon for Shell purchases and purchases from participating online stores and restaurants, which fund the program. “We’ve had people come in who had earned a dollar off,” Vick said. Open to Canadians, the program gives them an added incentive to come to the Point.

At Auntie Pam’s Country Store, Pamala Sheppard gives a break on the exchange rate to cash-paying customers. “If they’re getting 80 cents of the dollar they’re happy,” she said. She is also planning a Canadian At Party one day a month.

“The greatest impact is fewer people coming, but right now it’s hard to say because we’re in our slow season,” Sheppard said. She said summer 2015 felt slower than previous years, but revenue was actually up.

Crossings into Point Roberts in 2015 were down 14.4 percent overall compared to 2014. The percentage decrease during the high season – May to September – was down marginally less: 14.1 percent. Regular traffic was down 18.8 percent September through December while NEXUS traffic dropped 7.3 percent for the same period. Overall, NEXUS traffic only saw a 3 percent drop in 2014 from 2015, perhaps indicating regular crossers kept coming down, while more casual visitors shied away.

Richard Procter, co-owner of Brewster’s Fine Foods, agreed the problem was the drop in volume of customers, not their willingness to spend. “The Canadian customers we do get in we don’t hear a lot of complaints from, we’re just seeing fewer of them,” he said. He added they were grateful for the ongoing support from the local community and their wine club members.

The combination of the wavering loonie and the low season has led to some staff and inventory reductions. “It’s not just affecting us, it’s affecting our staff and our suppliers,” Procter said.

Marketplace manager Dean Priestman said they also saw lower customer volumes as the problem. “The main difference is the customer count is less. People are still buying what they used to,” he said. Priestman is advertising specials on the items Canadian shoppers are looking for as an incentive to come to the Point.

The Marketplace and the Shell Center have also had to cut labor costs. “We keep it tight but we make sure we take care of our base employees,” Priestman said. Vick said they had fewer employees now through attrition, but “we haven’t had to lay anybody off.”

TSB Shipping manager Teresa Pope said the impact of the low Canadian dollar had led to some “tweaking of hours,” but they were keeping people employed.

“We have a great staff and want to take care of them,” Pope said.

The largest parcel service on the Point, TSB has seen a 15–20 percent drop in volume. “There’s quite a few still loving the online selection but the dollar can make them think twice,” Pope said. “It’s being felt everywhere. Fewer orders, fewer people coming in.” Pope said their business was also at the mercy of online retailers, and as more sites follow Amazon’s lead and offer memberships and free shipping, it can make it worthwhile for Canadian customers even with a weaker dollar.

At Westwind Marine, Ben Lazarus said both his business and the Point Roberts Marina had added extra discounts this year. “The dollar doesn’t affect parts prices as much as service prices, since parts are sold at world market prices,” he said.

“We’ve put some deeper discounts in service but I can’t really drop the rates. Still, we’re still pretty competitive.” He has not had to cut staff but said the downturn has “made it harder to give raises and stuff you want to do for your staff.”

Other business owners agreed with Sheppard, who said her strategy is to hold on during the off-season and hope the summer months will see people coming to their cottages and not wanting to cross the border, boosting the fortunes of local businesses.

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