St. Clair County businesses see an increase in Canadian customers

While A Little Something has missed its Canadian customers during border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of them have found a warm welcome.

“We are very happy to have them back,” said store manager Lucie DeLine. “I really appreciate them and tell them that all the time.”

DeLine estimates that approximately 20% of its traffic comes from Canadian customers, who come on weekends and during the day to visit the ice cream and gift shop located in downtown Port Huron at the corner of Huron and Quay Street. She said she noticed a lot during the first Friday sweet ride.

“We love the crowds we get outside, so the first Fridays were really great,” DeLine said.

A Little Something manager Lucie DeLine prepares a scoop of ice cream at the store in downtown Port Huron Wednesday, September 7, 2022.

While car traffic has rebounded since the US border reopened to Canadians last November after a year and a half of border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian traffic has yet to reach levels of before the pandemic. Still, local businesses said they were starting to feel a boost in sales that could be attributed to increased cross-border traffic.

More automobile traffic in Canada in the first eight months of 2022 than in all of 2021

From January 1 to September 1, 2022, 418,407 cars entered Canada at the Blue Water Bridge from the United States, and 600,001 trucks entered, for a total of 1,018,408 vehicles. That’s compared to 171,674 cars, 835,136 trucks and 1,006,018 total vehicles for all of 2021, according to Michigan Department of Transportation regional spokeswoman Jocelyn Garza.

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, 286,919 cars; A total of 714,724 trucks and 1,001,643 vehicles entered Canada. In 2019, these numbers were 1,484,266; 808,179 and 2,292,445, respectively.

The Canada Border Services Agency declined to provide data on the number of westbound vehicles in the United States

The Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron on Saturday July 16, 2022.

So far, the Blue Water Bridge has generated revenue of $12,015,426, compared to $15,644,240 for all of last year. Garza said while the total number of vehicles has already exceeded last year, truck traffic has remained relatively stable during the pandemic. Cars generate less revenue than trucks, so revenue has yet to catch up to last year.

St. Clair County Economic Development Alliance CEO Dan Casey said international traffic provides an economic advantage to St. Clair County, especially the retail sector.

Customers shop at the A Little Something store in downtown Port Huron on Wednesday, September 7, 2022.

American consumer goods and gasoline are generally less expensive than Canadian goods, so Canadians often cross the border to buy groceries and return home after a few hours, Casey said. Canada also generally has a higher cost of living than the United States, but Canadians also generally have higher incomes, which gives them more money to spend.

“Canadians come here to do all sorts of things, from shopping, to buying new tires, to buying gas. What is interesting about being part of a border crossing is the cross-border economic impact that can occur. We have people going to Sarnia for dinner or vacations or anything similar to what is happening on our side of the border. So you have that kind of connection between the two countries or between the two regions where both benefit from this trade flow,” Casey said.

“We want to try to build on that. We want more Canadians to come here to shop,” he said.

Before the pandemic, retailers such as the big box stores in Fort Gratiot said up to 60% of their sales were to Canadians, Casey said, a number that appears to have yet to be reached by post-pandemic restrictions. borders.

Birchwood Shopping Center in Fort Gratiot.

“Traffic has improved from last year, but it’s still only 20 or 30 percent of what it usually is, so we still have a long way to go,” Casey said.

The retail sector is still recovering from the pandemic, supply chain issues and now a labor shortage. Hopefully numbers will rebound to pre-pandemic levels by next year when retailers have more time to deal with staffing shortages, Casey said.

Birchwood Mall general manager Lois Potts agreed that Canadian customers are a significant economic benefit to the mall and other Fort Gratiot businesses.

Losing customers to border restrictions, as well as Michigan’s own COVID-19 restrictions, has definitely hurt businesses, Potts said.

“When you see a drop in traffic, whether it’s US or Canadian customers, it’s hurting business and unfortunately that’s what COVID has done,” she said.

But, according to estimates based on license plates in the parking lot, the numbers could rebound to around 35% of mall traffic coming from Canadians, Potts said. She said traffic picked up just after the border reopened and slowed down a bit again in the summer when construction on the M-25 made travel to the township more difficult.

MI Passion owner Anita Varty stands by the counter at her storefront in downtown Port Huron Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

Potts said she’s optimistic customers will return and business will pick up after construction is complete and as the mall heads into the holiday season. The mall has lost several businesses during the pandemic, but Potts said she thinks Canadian shoppers will appreciate the changes to the mall as it focuses on attracting small local businesses alongside large national retailers.

Downtown Port Huron also benefits from cross-border traffic

While not home to the major Fort Gratiot retailers, businesses in downtown Port Huron said they are also seeing an increase in traffic.

Port Huron’s downtown development manager, Natacha Hayden, said while it’s hard to know exactly how many downtown shoppers and diners are from Canada, it’s a clientele that companies are wise to tap into.

“(Canada) is still important just to expand our options,” Hayden said. “Our customer base is no longer just 50 miles north or south, you can cross the border and tap into that market as well, which is a good option to have.”

Merchandise items at the MI Passion store in downtown Port Huron on Wednesday, September 7, 2022.

Hayden said several downtown businesses have reported an overall increase in traffic and sales and Canadian customers in particular.

Anita Varty, owner of MI Passion in downtown Port Huron, said while it’s unclear how many of her customers are Canadian, she’s seen business pick up since the border reopened. It has hired new employees over the past year to cope with increased traffic and sales.

“It’s great to see everyone supporting us and buying small businesses,” Varty said.

Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or [email protected] Contact McKenna Golat at (810) 292-0122 or [email protected]

Sailboats pass under the Blue Water Bridge before the start of the Bayview Mackinaw Race on Lake Huron in Port Huron on Saturday, July 16, 2022.