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Canadians to cash in on Black Friday in W.Pa.

As Americans settled in for tryptophan-induced naps after Thanksgiving dinner, our neighbors north of the border were getting on buses, boarding planes and gearing up for weekend-long trips in search of Black Friday’s best bargains.

In Mercer County, bus groups from Ontario booked the seven hotels near the Grove City Premium Outlets to capacity, said Debbie Scott, general manager of the Best Western Grove City Inn.

“They book them a year in advance,” she said. “They’ve been coming since the outlets have opened at midnight.”

This is the fourth year the 140 discount stores opened at midnight. Some shops even began welcoming customers at 10 last night.

The travelers begin preparing for the evening sales after dinner.

“They come back, take a nap, and we have a ton of wake up calls set for quarter to 10,” Scott said, adding that’s just enough time for the shoppers — a majority of them women — to wash their faces and get out the door to line up for a shuttle that runs from the hotels to the outlet stores.

With Ontario’s sales tax at 13 percent and the Canadian dollar nearly on par with U.S. currency, Black Friday deals are especially appealing to Canadians, who can get a head start on their American counterparts because they do not celebrate Thanksgiving in November. According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, automobile traffic at the 22 busiest land border crossings increased by nearly 28,000 cars– about 16 percent — during Thanksgiving weekend last year, compared to the week before. A similar increase was expected this year.

As retailers struggle to recover from the economic downturn, Canadian shoppers are helping to make sure Black Friday puts their bottom line in the black.

“When the economy went down, if it wasn’t for the Canadians, we’d all be out of jobs … and they’re not just spending a little bit, they’re spending a lot,” Scott said, adding that, on any day of the year, about 75 percent of Best Western Grove City Inn guests are Canadians.

Frank Salucci, general manager at the Tanger Outlet Center in South Strabane, said that in recent years more Canadian tourists have made the Washington County stores a destination.

“They do come down for the shopping, the casino and other area attractions,” he said. “It seems like the Canadian shoppers are doing overnight trips and longer trips.”

Salucci said visitors are looking for variety beyond some of the shopping near the border, and the tours that bring people five and a half hours from Toronto usually include stops in Pittsburgh for shows or sporting events.

“For years, they’ve gone to the same places, so now they’re looking to spread out and go to some different places,” he said. “It’s a vacation to them — some people like to go to the beach, some like to shop.”

Ashley Agueci, 24, of Toronto was hoping to spend a fun weekend with friends as she prepared to board a plane to New York City on Thursday.

“Everyone knows about Black Friday here,” she said. “I’ve just read the stories.”

Agueci said it would be her first Black Friday in the United States, and while she was looking forward to good deals on clothing and shoes, she was nervous about Black Friday’s darker side, including long lines and overly eager bargain hunters. In 2008, for example, a Long Island Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a crowd of shoppers.

“I’m a little worried about that,” Agueci acknowledged.

To avoid the craziness, Marina Del Sordo, a tour operator with Nella Travel in Hamilton, Ontario, said her company’s tours would arrive in New York City and at the Grove City outlets this afternoon.

“We don’t really go for the Black Friday midnight,” she said. “I went one time and I said never again.”

Del Sordo said the deals would still be worthwhile, especially because Pennsylvania does not have a sales tax for most clothes and shoes. In fact, she said, Canadian shopping tours cross the border every time the country has a three-day weekend.

As they watch potential customers travel south, Canadian retailers are competing by offering their own Black Friday deals.

For the second year, Toys “R” Us stores in Canada advertised half-off sales this weekend on many toys. Sears Canada, in its first Black Friday promotion, is offering discounts on electronics and will match prices at any U.S. retail store.

“We’re trying to convince shoppers to remain in Canada,” said Sears Canada spokesman Vincent Power.

Though many Canadians will continue go to the United States for their bargains, Power said Canadian retailers looked at Black Friday as an opportunity, because it allows them to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

“Our Thanksgiving is when you celebrate Columbus Day,” he explained. “We haven’t had that mark. As retailers, it’s a way of saying, there’s only four weeks left!”


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