Hello, Canadians: Ross Park Mall and Pittsburgh's tourism agency court northern neighbors

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Canadians have been smuggling contraband back across the border with the U.S. for years, doing things like cutting sales tags off pants, shirts and blouses before heading home -- even wearing several layers of clothes to avoid being detained at the border for exceeding the duty-free limits.

"We would wear 500 pairs of pants," said Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, the tourism promotion agency for Allegheny County. Mr. Davis grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario, not far from Buffalo, N.Y., where shopping across the border was popular.

It still is.

Officials at Ross Park Mall have noticed a steady flow of buses packed with Canadians showing up there, especially since the opening of the Nordstrom department store in 2008 that also drew other luxury retailers to the shopping center.

"We knew they shopped," said Michael Gianoutsos, director of marketing and business development at the mall. "We didn't know how much interest would come after the redevelopment."

VisitPittsburgh has advertised the region to Canadians for quite a while. More than 5 percent of the people who make inquiries on the agency's website are from Canada.

Now the tourism agency and the shopping center are working together to be even more welcoming, starting with an official Canadian shopping weekend the third week of September that includes discounts, a contest and prizes.

The event was set to kick off with this weekend, during which a Canadian travel-focused radio show was lined up to hold a contest giving three winners each a $500 gift card to help cover the cost of getting to Ross Park Mall, where they will compete later in September by scurrying around the suburban shopping center with another $500 to put together a themed outfit.

The prize for the best outfit? Another trip back to see a Penguins game.

Too much Pittsburgh? Maybe not.

"We're huge fans of Pittsburgh," said Lorna Hundt, co-founder of Great Canadian Holidays, a Kitchener, Ontario, company that has been running motor coach tours since 1984.

The company, which has already scheduled four three-day trips between now and Thanksgiving for shopping in Erie and Grove City, regularly makes stops in Pittsburgh on bus tours going to other places like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Any shopping location in Pennsylvania automatically looks appealing to Canadians because the state doesn't collect taxes on most clothing.

"When our dollar reached parity [with the U.S. dollar], it became even more attractive," said Ms. Hundt, who added that some of Great Canadian Holidays travelers report they've saved enough on their purchases to cover the cost of the trip.

The bus company has about 2,200 people a year using its Erie/Grove City tours, and it does a lot of chartered group trips to various destinations in the state, as well. A visit to Lancaster County isn't just about shopping, for example, but it always includes some time for that on the agenda.

Pittsburgh's geographical draw is made more tempting by the Canadian rules that say individuals can bring back $200 worth of goods if they've been in the U.S. between 24 and 48 hours, but they can transport up to $800 worth of goods after 48 hours.

The Steel City makes for a logical overnight stop that also offers interesting things to do. Ms. Hundt reeled off a list of some of the popular attractions here, including Gateway Clipper boat rides, the National Aviary, the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel.

"They're looking for unique experiences," Mr. Davis said. "You wouldn't travel if there wasn't something you couldn't get here."

The Canadians aren't just coming by bus. This region is an easy drive by car, too, and VisitPittsburgh reports that nearly 65,000 Canadians flew into Pittsburgh International Airport last year.

Simon Property Group, the Indianapolis developer that owns Ross Park Mall, acquired a number of outlet centers, including Grove City Premium Outlets, in 2010. That opened up the possibility of a partnership between discount and luxury retail offerings. The Grove City outlet center -- long an easy place to find Canadian license plates in the parking lot -- will be giving out coupon books to anyone who can show a Canadian ID during the Sept. 21 weekend.

Longer term, the Ross Park Mall team is hoping to better track who is coming to that shopping center to help improve tourist visits. The mall has begun sending out someone to talk to the bus operators who pull up in its parking lot and it recently hosted a breakfast to connect concierges from area hotels with the mall's upscale retailers. Mr. Gianoutsos said tourists often look for tips from the hotels they are staying in.

All this comes against a backdrop of the nation's leaders tinkering with ways to make it easier for Brazilians, Chinese and Indians to bring their money to the United States, with proposals on the needed changes to promote retail tourism tied up in the immigration legislation that has stirred up a national debate.

The proposed changes wouldn't affect Canadians significantly -- they don't need visas to get into the U.S. -- although the plan does call for allowing Canadians over 50 to stay in America 240 days rather than 180. That's targeted to the snowbirds who winter in places like Florida.

As might be expected, north of the border all this out-of-country shopping gets mixed reviews.

Erik Autor, with the Toronto-based Retail Council of Canada, noted that 70 percent of Canadians live with an hour and a half drive of the U.S. border. Rising gas prices may have become more of a factor in keeping that nation's citizens at home, but he noted Canada's economy wasn't hit as hard by the recession.

"As long as you see significant enough price differences between Canada and the United States, there will be an incentive to go across the border and shop," he said.

For years, the variety of stores available in the U.S. has been a draw, even when the currency exchange was less favorable for Canadians. Some of that is changing as more retailers cross the border in both directions. Minneapolis-based Target is making a big move into Canada, while lululemon athletica inc., which makes yoga clothes and running gear, hails from Vancouver.

Last year, Hudson's Bay Co. -- a Toronto retail chain founded in 1670 that claims to be North America's longest continually operating company -- bought New York retailer Lord & Taylor, and then this year said it would add Saks Fifth Avenue, also based in New York, to its portfolio.

Ms. Hundt reported seeing no slowing of demand for retail experiences in the U.S. Every trip her company makes includes some shopping time, but she said there's nothing quite like a busload of bargain hunting shoppers cheering each other on as they compare the deals they got.

Canadian retailers are well aware of the competition, and they've been stepping up their game. Ms. Hundt noted that last year some stores in Canada advertised "Black Friday" specials to coincide with the traditional shopping frenzy that comes the day after the U.S. version of Thanksgiving. "We've never seen that before," she said.

If the retailers up north are stepping up their game, what would it take to make Canadian shoppers inclined to keep coming to Western Pennsylvania? Well, Ms. Hundt said, people always appreciate coupons.

businessnews - lifestyle - fashion

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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