Watch my life unravel...



Top Canadian Blogs - Top Blogs

Local Directory for Ottawa, ON


Cross Border Shopping Trip

I may have mentioned before I’m not a shopper. After about half an hour of shopping, I get Mall Fever: a combination of lethargy, options paralysis, depression, and a feeling of being both overwhelmed and underwhelmed simultaneously. I don’t like to leave empty-handed, though, because then I will have subjected myself to Mall Fever for nothing.

So it might seem odd that I went cross-border shopping this weekend. And in fact it IS odd. I think I’ve only done it once before, years ago with my sister, and we were unimpressed with the prices and came back almost empty-handed.

I’m not sure what inspired me to go shopping this time. Something to do with the dollar surpassing the US dollar, something to do with learning Christmas is only six weeks away, something to do with getting swept along with the crowd.

I was able to pursuade a friend to join me, even though he is even less of a shopper than me. We had both read Kelly Egan’s cross-border shopping column and took to heart his advice about not arriving at the border mid-morning on a Saturday.

No smoking gunsHe picked me up bright and early Saturday morning, and we arrived at the Hill Island crossing well before mid-morning. It was a 40-minute wait to get through the border. I liked the “No Guns” and “No Smoking” pictograms.

“How long are you staying?” asked the guard.

“Just till tomorrow,” we said.

“Do you have a reservation somewhere?”


“Good luck,” said the guard, “All these other people are going to the same place as you, and there’s only so many rooms in Syracuse. People are telling me they had trouble making reservations because the hotels were booked solid.”

The first thing we did when we got to Syracuse was find accommondations, which turned out to be no problem at all.

Then we went shopping!

So apparently this Carousel Mall is supposed to be really hot shit shopping. And judging by the throngs of shoppers who were there, you’d almost believe it. All these people can’t be wrong! It’s gotta be a shopping paradise!

Well, three hours later, after dragging ourselves from store to store and asking ourselves “Is there anything here we even kind of want to buy?” we were burnt out and discouraged. I had purchased five bars of glycerin soap from The Body Shop for $12.50. My friend hadn’t bought anything. The soap was marginally cheaper than it was in Canada, but once you factored in the price of gas and accommodations and meals, this soap was working out to about $50 a bar.

We knew we had to buy more stuff to bring down the cost of the soap. But we couldn’t find anything worth buying. The Syracuse Mall was filled with crap. All the clothes were made of acrylic, which is not designed to withstand laundering. There were almost no books in the bookstores – just calendars and CDs and greeting cards and Christmas ornaments. Most of the merchandise in all the stores seemed cheap, ugly and poorly made in China. The prices weren’t impressive either.

Libby Lu PrincessesThere were a couple of interesting stores that we don’t have here. There was a creepy beauty salon/merchandising mecca for little princess girls, called Libby Lu. Everything was pink and acrylic and celebrity-inspired. I went in and took pictures, which made my friend a little uneasy because if a man were to go in there and take pictures of little girls, someone would probably call security. And he was only one step removed from that, being a man with a woman who was taking pictures of little girls.

Eventually we got exhausted and thirsty and some of us got a little bit cranky. We decided to go to the food court for a bottle of water, then hit the Bath & Body store for some things I had been considering buying, and then go to the other mall in the hopes it might be better. Which is what we did.

The other mall was a carbon copy of the first mall, except it had fewer stores (the same stores though) and fewer shoppers. We wandered aimlessly about, didn’t buy anything, and left.

Over dinner at Tully’s (where we had a charmingly slow-witted waiter named Kenny) we pondered the great mysteries of the universe, like why does everybody else think Syracuse is such a wonderful place to shop? And is Cross-Border Shopping one of those Naked Emporer things? And could shopping be considered a legitimate hobby, since some people do it recreationally every single weekend?

We decided that we could not bring ourselves to return to the Carousel mall the next day, so we would drive to Waterloo, 50 miles away, home of the famous Waterloo Outlet Mall. I was re-energized by this decision, since there is a Coldwater Creek at the Waterloo Outlet Mall.

Cross Border Shopping, Day 2

We ate the hotel’s icky complimentary breakfast then hit the road. After a little bit of getting lost in Waterloo (which is the birthplace of both Women’s Rights and Memorial Day), we found the Outlet Mall. Interestingly, it’s kind of a gigantic strip mall – you have to go outside to get from one store to the next. But there are an awful lot of stores, and most of them are huge.

The first thing I bought was a little food processor for $10. I’ve been meaning to replace mine since it broke about five years ago. I also bought a kitchen timer in the same store.

Then I bought underwear.

I started loosening up at Eddie Bauer’s and got into a bit of a shopping groove: I bought two pairs of jeans ($39 each; they’re $75 here in Ottawa) and a bunch of shirts and stuff for $7.99 each.

At Coldwater Creek I really hit my shopping stride. I was touching things and trying things on and even trying on things I wasn’t sure about. The “keep” pile was pretty big. Everything was on sale – 20 to 70% off the lowest marked price. I bought tons of stuff and it came to $168.

Next stop: Liz Claiborne. Everything in the store was on sale for $9.99, except blazers, which were $19.99. But the place was a nuthouse. There were clothes all over the floor and huge lineups, and I just wasn’t in the mood for the kind of fast fierce shopping that was going on in there. We didn’t stay long (but I did get a pair of jeans for $9.99).

Then there was Reebok, Rockport, Nike, Geoffrey Beene, and on and on and on and on. Until finally, after five hours of shopping, we were spent and we figured we’d sufficiently lowered the unit cost of the five bars of soap, so we left.

It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to get through the border and customs – 30 minutes in the car, and 45 minutes in the tax lineup. The customs office seemed like a model of inefficiency. First you have to line up to have your receipts tallied and your total taxes calculated. Then you have to line up to pay your taxes. Why can’t the agent who calculates your taxes also take your tax payment?

I spent about $500. My friend spent $13 on a cast iron frying pan. When you take into consideration the cost of accommodations and gas and meals, I doubt very much that our cross-border shopping trip was cheaper than shopping here in Ottawa.

But if you’re going to do it, here are my recommendations:

1. If you don’t like malls, stay out of the malls. A mall is a mall is a mall, no matter how far you travel to get to it.
2. But Outlet malls are better than regular malls.
3. If you’re going to stay overnight, shop around and book ahead.
4. If you’re boycotting China, don’t go shopping. Everything is made in China. There are no exceptions.

15 comments to Cross Border Shopping Trip

  • Whooee! I ain’t a avid shopper but I do like gettin’ a bargain. All things considered, cross border shoppin’ ain’t much of a bargain unless you live right on the border an’ even then, I ain’t sure it makes sense.

    I live about 2 hours from Buffalo, NY. My brother lives right in Buffalo. He’s recoverin’ from some surgery an’ my ol’ Mum am’ I went over to Merka last Friday fer a hospital visit. I was dreadin’ the Peace Bridge traffic but we went early an’ came home early an’ there was only a short wait both ways.

    I drove past a few bigass malls an’ big box stores an’ such but I didn’t buy a dang thing. That helped get us through the customs booth quick on the way home.

    My Merkan brother sez the big thing they notice about all the Canajuns comin’ over lately is we’re a buncha litterbugs. He sez the mall parkin’ lots i sstrewn with discarded clothes an’ shoes. The Canajuns are tossin’ their old rags out the window an’ smugglin’ their new wardrobes on their backs. Embarrassin’, sez I.


  • Gillian

    In Syracuse, you could have gone to the Apple Store, if you’re still interested in a Mac.

  • Did you get to check out any local yarn shops? After a bout of mall fever, I find an hour or more of skein fondling helps me to recover.

    I live about 5 minutes from the US border. Since the dollar went up, every weekend the lineups are 90 minutes +.

  • Now that is a shopping adventure.

    need knitting idea?

  • Hi

    Thanks so much.

    Great week :o)

  • JimBobby, that’s an interesting strategy, and probably makes for some interesting people-watching in the American mall parking lots. Next time instead of shopping, I’ll just scrounge for good cast-offs in the parking lot.

    Ah Gillian, I didn’t know they had an Apple store in Syracuse! Damn. But I think I’ve decided not to go the Mac route after all. I was just temporarily seduced by the Mac’s sleek factor, but have since decided sleek’s not worth the premium price.

    Prole, I could have used a fondling fix, but I didn’t see a single yarn shop anywhere. I did pass by a quilting shop in Waterloo, but alas, I’m not much of a fabric fondler. Next time I’ll google the local yarn shops before I go – thanks for the tip!

    Pearl – I could never knit anything so scary!

    Hi Mauricio – I’m sorry about your mom. Be good to yourself.

  • Techwood

    I used to be a factory mall addict. I’d travel all over the place looking for them. I lived to shop in them because I was sure I was getting a bargain. Compared to their boutique stores – they were a bargain. But what I found is that I just purchased more of the stuff and ended up spending the same amount. There were a few items that were actually worthwhile and a few that I question whether they were even sanctioned by the label.

    1. Brooks Brothers 100% cotton boxer briefs – I’ve had several pairs for over 9 years and they go through the wash weekly.

    2. Ralph Lauren Polo cotton chinos – same durability, but the cuffs are now getting frayed.

    3. Bass Shoes – here’s where the questioning comes in. I used to love their shoes and have owned about two dozen pairs. But while at factory malls I bought about a dozen or so of them and find that they don’t have the same durability as the ones that came from the boutiques. They weren’t advertised as seconds – and they definitely passed my visual inspection and initial wearability tests. But the soles come off of them and on several pairs and I’ve noticed a different grade of plastic/rubber/leather is on them compared to the regular store ones.

    I noticed that when shopping at a lot of factory stores you’ll find not only their seconds – but entire lines of products that were likely never in their regular stores. Usually made with materials that undoubtedly end up being inferior. Maybe they were test runs? But hey, it’s a better bargain, or so we’re led to believe.

    I’ve given up on most forms of shopping. I can’t stand the regular malls and I don’t know that I trust a lot of the stuff coming out of the factory malls anymore – though I might check out some specific ones for new underwear and chinos.

    I agree – everything is made in China and some day we’re all going wake up and realize that we sold out and got taken – I don’t quite no the impact of what that means – but it’s certainly not good and could be worst that what most of us may imagine. This is a positive blog, so I won’t tell you China’s going to have all the money and one day we’ll find out that not only have they been making lead contaminated toys, but also weapons to take us to war with. But on the positive note, if the weapons are the same quality as what they sell us we likely don’t have too much to worry about right?

    I’m just glad you shopped at the friendly factory stores and not the plastic malls.


  • ooh I really feel like I was there with you – especially once you got to the underwear and then kept on buying.

    in vietnam they have an even better system than your receipt tallying and tax paying. on highway 1 you periodically stop and purchase a toll ticket at a cubicle containing between 4 and 7 uniformed workers. you then drive forward about 50 feet to another cubicle with another posse of uniformed workers and hand them the ticket you just purchased. no one smiles. then you drive off and the collector drops the ticket on the ground….

  • Jo

    Hi Zoom!

    Totally unrelated to the corss border shopping (though I’m inclined to agree with you, I never find much that I couldn’t get here at the malls, though at a mall in Boston I got my iPod-compatible clock radio for half the price it was here, which was nice.) Megan couldn’t remember, but she thought you might need a guitar stand. I have one that is free to a good home if you are actually in the market for such a thing.


  • Man (girl), there are a LOT of naked emperor things! Someone should make a list.

    I remember the Coldwater Creek catalogues from the late 80s and then they changed the merchandise and it wasn’t as nice (at least, I think it was Coldwater Creek). They used to have beautiful, native-inspired things like jewelry and art. I haven’t checked out their stuff in 10 years – I’ll have to go look.

  • TW, thanks for not telling me that the Chinese are using our money to build weapons to destroy us with. 😉 Actually, isn’t that the basic principle of some martial arts? Use your enemy’s weakness against him? In this case, maybe they’re using our greed to destroy us. Hmmm.

    Nursemyra, that’s an interesting system. And well-staffed too!

    Jo, thanks so much for the offer – I did need a guitar stand, but my son got me one for my birthday. So now I’m good. But thank you very much for thinking of me. :)

    Julia, I’m not sure if I even knew of CC back in the 80s – I think I only discovered them a few years ago. I didn’t see anything that appeared to be native-inspired though.

    As for the naked emperer things, you’re right, there are a LOT of them.

  • Delurking here, to tell you that you missed the best part of shopping in the US – the books! I had to be physically dragged from a Barnes and Noble and a pee break at a Borders cost about $45. If feels like everything is on sale because the back of the book says: US $14.99, Canada: $21.99, but then they put tons of stuff actually on sale. The knitting section at B&N was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

    That being said, I’d never actually bother to drive to the US just to shop. We took a family trip to NY. The cheap underwear, books and kids clothes were then just a big bonus.

  • Techwood

    I’m not really much of a book person – but even I was able to find lots of reasons to hange out in the B&N stores.


  • Welcome to my blog, Justmakingitup. We did actually go to a Borders in the first mall, but we didn’t stay long because it was full of non-book stuff. It was like Chapters – you have to push through all the other merchandise like candles and gift baskets and calendars and CDs before you get anywhere near the books. But at Chapters you know you will be rewarded with a rich book selection. This particular Borders looked awfully small and unpromising.

    But we discovered on the way back that books and children’s clothes are tax-exempt at the border, so yeah, you’re right, book shopping is where it’s at. Next time!

  • Johnathan

    I think the key is finding the bargains in the U.S. For example, Macy’s provides an additional 11% off to international shoppers but people are rarely aware of it.

    Just need to do some research before heading down.