Duty-Free Bargain Hunting in Canada?

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Best Advice… Expert Says Forget It

By Mike McKenzie

A birdie told you: Take a quick, turnaround trip up through Blaine, or Lynden, or Sumas and shop for some bargains at the duty-free shop in British Columbia, and whip on back home—taking advantage of the low exchange rate for the Canadian dollar.

Possibly a spray bottle of Bvigari Solid Perfume. Perhaps some Robert Mondavi Cabernet, and a couple of bottles of Dos Equis XX Lager while you’re at it. Or, make it a Ballentine’s day for some 30-year aged Scotch. And, in trying to create your little cache cow, it’s so small that, shoot, why even tell the customs agent?

Take a deep breath before you do. Look in the mirror and say, “Don’t. Do. It.” That shopping suggestion is for the birds, according to an expert we talked to at length about doing business and shopping transactions across the border. Never, he said, attempt to pull a fast one with a fast trip thinking that you’ll be okay.

Len and Marcia Beckett, a husband-wife team, have owned and operated Rugosa Trading Inc. in Blaine since 2007, and Len has been involved in cross-border, retail commerce for decades. They put the know in no-no when, as consultants, they’re advising clients about export and import shipping and trade.

“That’s misguided advice,” Len Beckett said in a conversation about doing in-and-out business in Canada, individually or as a company.

“If you’re a savvy shopper,” he said, and if upon returning you “…answer questions honestly…”—i.e, declare whatever you purchased, and stay within the allowable limits for duty-free on certain products during a visit of 48 hours or longer, say a getaway to Victoria on Vancouver Island ($800 limit), or a quick day trip to White Rock or Fort Langley ($250)—then maybe, just maybe, you’ll strike a bargain here and there. Or certainly you can enjoy a good meal at 80 cents on the dollar.

Beckett said the key to that, or any casual shopping as a non-resident of Canada, is simple: “Do the math.” For example, he pointed out that a bottle of any given spirits might result in a cheap buy because at the duty-free shop it’s available in 40-ounce bottles, instead of the 27-ounce buy at your local retail store in the U.S.

Things also can get tricky because of distinctions as to  which agencies lord over which products. While most products, you would assume, fall under U.S. Customs regulations, if you try to bring any beef or fruits and vegetables into the U.S. it’s a no-no, because you fall under scrutiny of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.

Worse, you might innocently try to sneak in a little bottle of a hard-to-find perfume and get caught and suddenly find yourself dealing with ATF agents. “Perfume has alcohol in it,” Beckett reminded us. That’s alcohol, as in Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms federal law enforcement. You thought you were just saving a few bucks on smell-good, and now you’re a moonshiner and in deep frou frou.

Well, not as deep as, say, a crate of firearms in a hidden compartment, but subject to a steep fine. Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know.

“With careful research beforehand,” Beckett said, “you might go up on a short trip to find some good deals, especially in clothing, or alcohol beverages, or a few other items. But when you do the math, be sure to factor in the cost of gas and what your time is worth.”

When asked point-blank whether it’s usually worth the trip just to run up north across the border to bargain hunt, he didn’t mince words: “No.”

In general, Beckett said, “Movement in retail trade across the border, both ways, is good. When the Canadian dollar is hurting, movement slows down coming south, even though Canadians can still find savings in commodities like gas, milk, and other dairy, etc.”

Assuming you’re reporting and answering Custom’s questions honestly about your trip, then “It’s all based on intent,” Beckett said, “such as how much you buy, whether you’re buying for personal consumption or to resell in retail, and how long you stay on your trip. If you don’t have a lot of experience with cross-border shopping, it’s not worth trying to save a few bucks.

“Basically, a turnaround at the flagpole doesn’t really work.”


On the other hand, if your business involves importing or exporting across the Canadian (or other) border, Beckett can help you save both money and, especially, time and the headaches of red tape as a third-party service provider.

Len and Marcia Beckett operate on behalf of cross-border commercial clients in distribution and logistics at Rugosa Trading in Blaine, specializing in large clients across sectors ranging from lumber to skin-care products. Services include everything from importing and commercial distribution to direct web marketing, to custom packaging and bulk mail.

While he has a broker’s license, Len said that he has not worked in brokerage for several years. “We were partners with Steve Sanders several years, and in 2003 we dissolved the partnership (amicably),” he explained. “Steve took over the brokerage part of our business with his own company, and Marcia and I took over the operations side of it. We work with our clients in a consulting capacity on their needs, and if they need brokerage we happily refer them to Sanders Brokerage.”

The Becketts’ business has your business’s back on saving piles of paperwork, short-cutting the process of cross-border logistics. “You have to know who all the players are if you get involved in cross-border commerce,” Len said.

Rugosa offers warehousing for “pick and pack” e-commerce fulfillment or for drop-shipping, for example. They’ve created what they call the “Next Step” program for staging exports and for online specialty product sales, and for freight forwarding.

The Becketts tell an interesting story about how they chose the name Rugosa for their company. Basically, Rugosa is an extinct coral with fossils found around the world, and, as told on their website, “We chose the name to symbolize a deep-rooted beginning and long-term reach for the infinite in a growth pattern consistent and in harmony with the world around us.”

So, conversely to individual bargain hunting in Canada, you can save a great deal in cross-border commerce by consulting with the Becketts, who will make sure your dealings stay within required parameters. “We have a nearly 100% rate of compliance as specialists in this field of logistics and distribution,” Len Beckett said. “We’ve found a niche that we excel in.”

 

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