Way up north, where the shoppin's good

Posted by TheYank at 11/3/2009 1:30 PM EST

I was shopping 'up north' last week. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is something of an issue here.

Now, just to get a few things straight - (a) no, I wasn't shopping alone; it's not my thing and (b) shopping was more of an incidental part of our journey north and not the main focus. Still, the weather was so bad we ended up extending our shopping by about two hours, which suited some members of the family just fine.

For a lot of people who live on this side of the border, however, the trip north these days is all about shopping and nothing else. The strength of the euro and the difference in the VAT rates (sales tax, but it's always included in the price) combined make the price of goods on the far side of the border much cheaper than here.

Obviously, the store-owners on this side are not happy about this. Nor is the government because they're losing out on tax revenues. Of course, the retailers and the government have it within their powers to change those factors that make the trip north so inviting, but they'd rather moan and curse than do something constructive.

{Oh, and there's one more group that's not all that happy - those northerners who live near the border and now find their shopping centers, and the roads to them, over-crowded thanks to the people flooding in from the south. A recent survey found that 70% of the cars in the parking lots of border-area shopping centers were from this side of the border.}

We get fairly regular pep talks from various government ministers and retail representatives encouraging (begging) us to shop local and not go north, but it's a lost cause. Some commentators try to use economic logic on us - saying that the price of gas & tolls for such a trip can be €30, which means you need to make a lot of savings to make the trip worthwhile.

It's all to no avail. If Yogi Berra lived here he would undoubtedly say something along the lines of, "Nobody shops up north any more. It's too packed." And if my family is anything to go by, it doesn't take long to recoup your €30 investment in gas and tolls through savings.

In fact, thanks to the stupidity of some of the big UK retailers here, we can see what the savings are with little effort. The price tags have both the euro and the sterling prices, depending on which side of the border you're on.

One top my wife bought was marked at £30 and €47, which is a difference that is far greater than can be explained by the differences in the exchange and tax rates (should be closer to €35). It doesn't take a genius to realize you're being overcharged in euros. You buy a two such shirts and a couple bottles of wine and you've saved your gas and toll money.

Of course, nobody stops at that. You shop til your car can hold no more and drive home with savings measured in hundreds.

This isn't a new topic, but thanks to the near death of the economy it feels more desperate than it has in the past.

Way back when I first came here there was a lot of chatter about people going north to buy alcohol, which was (and is) a lot cheaper up north. Stories about people driving north to fill the trunks of their cars with crates of beer and spirits were a part of the Irish Christmas back then. However, there was rarely any discussion of people buying other goods - it was always only about alcohol. These days alcohol is only a part of the story.

Last week along with those shoppers just looking to dress their families, etc. there were reports of wedding parties and wedding guests heading north to take advantage of the savings. I heard one couple on the radio describing how they'd saved hundreds on an engagement ring. I could almost hear every other engaged couple instantly saying, "We should do that."

And now Christmas is coming. The economic downturn was bad enough, but retailers down here fear that the lure of big savings north of the border might be the end for many of them.

Sure we'll all regret it when our shopping centers are full of emptiness, just rows of abandoned stores, but unless the prices on the two sides of the border equalize it is pointless urging people to think about the big picture. People will always go to shop where they get the best value for their money.


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