Shopping Guides

A Canadian petite’s guide to cross-border shopping

Cross-border shopping is a fact of life for most of us Canadians. Ninety percent of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the US border. Most of us have grown up taking shopping trips to exciting border towns like Burlington, Albany or Plattsburgh in search of more product selection at lower prices. Many of us learned how to navigate the customs process before we even learned to read and write.

The value of cross-border shopping has fluctuated with the relative strength of the Canadian dollar. And over the years, those American-only retailers that seemed so exotic to us as kids have slowly opened up shop here, taking a lot of the fun out of it. Many Canadians stopped cross-border shopping altogether when our dollar first fell to the 60 cent mark over a decade ago, and some have never resumed. E-commerce has also changed the game significantly.

But for petites, the reality is that the selection is just that much better in the US. With ten times the population size of Canada, they can afford to have more diverse sizes produced at scale. For those of us on the lower end of the height spectrum, the United States is still filled with magic and wonder and more petites selection than we will ever dream of seeing at home. Often, even retailers that exist here in Canada only sell their “specialty sizes” like petites south of the border.

Technology has also changed the retail game. Increasingly, petites is being relegated to online-only, meaning it’s no longer possible to pop across the border for the weekend to stock up on wardrobe basics. Some e-tailers will ship to Canada, sure. But most of them charge exorbitant shipping and handling, not to mention the hassles of returns or exchanges if something doesn’t fit. Many others don’t ship here at all.

So, what’s a petite Canadian to do?

1. Ship to the border

The first step is to get yourself a US shipping address. If you have a helpful friend or relative, great, but what if you don’t? Luckily, there’s a solution. I’ve signed up for a US shipping address at a border mail depot via — a service that provides a shipping address at various locations all conveniently right across the border from major Canadian cities. The one I use is in Champlain, NY, a mere 45 minute drive from Montreal.

The service is free to sign up for, and I pay a flat $5 fee per package. Which means I only pay when I use it. In addition to providing an address, the lovely folks at the depot also offer a full shipping and returns service, which is extremely convenient (more on this later). Plus they have computer terminals with internet — handy if you don’t want to roam on your phone’s data plan in the US — packing, shipping and signature services, and even a dressing room to try stuff on. Plus, they’re open on the weekends. It’s basically the best thing ever.

2. Shop the sales and promos

There are good deals and promotions to be had when shopping in the US year-round. But the best ones tend to cluster around certain times of year. The hands-down best time to get amazingly cheap clothing is just after US Thanksgiving in late November, during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. I often wait to do a “big shop” over that weekend, often buying items at 50%, 60%, even 70% off or more. Other good times to shop are right after Christmas — the Americans don’t celebrate Boxing Day, but they discount anyway — and in the summertime. Also, midweek flash sales on Tuesdays or Wednesdays are common at a lot of retailers.

Whenever you shop, remember to check out the coupon sites like RetailMeNot to see if there’s an active promo or coupon code in effect. Petite clothing is generally more expensive than regular, not to mention the extra money we have to pay on shipping charges, exchange rates, duties, and alterations. So save where you can.

3. Getting around the US billing address requirement

The thing about those great deals and promotions is that they’re often only available if you ship to the US. Shop on Macy’s international site, for instance, and you’ll not only find a much lower selection, but you’ll quickly realize that those coupon codes and sales don’t work. But, due to some combination of American centre-of-the-universe-itis and general web design fails, many e-tailers will only allow you to ship to a US address if you also have a US billing address.

There are a couple of ways around this for Canadians.

  • Actually use a US billing address, if you have one. If you have a US address, you may be able to call up your credit card company and ask them to include it as an alternate address. Better yet, if you have a US address and a social security number, you can apply for a US credit card. But this guide is written on the assumption that most Canadians don’t actually own property or have a credit history in the US, so, next option.
  • Ask an American friend or relative to purchase the items on their credit card, and then pay them back. But again, that’s imposing on people and a bit of a hassle, so also not a great option.
  • Use a service like US Unlocked, which provides a US billing address for a subscription fee. Basically, it’s giving you a prepaid credit card with a virtual US address. I’ve never actually used one of these services, so I can’t provide a detailed review, but it can be an option — albeit a rather expensive one — if you have no other choice.
  • A few hacks that may work on some forms that require a US billing address format: Put both your city and province in the “city” field. Then, in the “zip” field, use the three numeric digits from your postal code followed by 00 to create a 5-digit number. And in the “state” field, reverse lookup your fake zip code to find the corresponding state that it’s in, and use that. So, for instance, if your postal code is H1A 2A3, then you would put “12300” in the zip code field, and New York in the state field, since zip codes starting with 12 generally are in New York. This trick may not work; it depends on how strong the security protocols are that the site is using. (By the way, the fake zip code trick is a good one to try at gas station pumps in the US that require you to enter your zip code before you can start filling up your car, too.)
  • Just call them. This is the option I use and recommend. Most of the time, the US billing address requirement is more of an IT failure than a strict policy. Phone agents at most US department stores and e-tailers are happy to put my order through manually if I ask.

4. Get a credit card that doesn’t charge FOREX fees

Most people don’t realize this, but your credit card or bank charges a commission on top of the official Visa or Mastercard foreign exchange rate whenever you make a purchase in foreign currency. At most banks, this averages to be about 2.5% of the purchase price, which may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly.

You can get around this by applying for a credit card with no forex fees. The one I have, the rewards Visa from Chase, unfortunately not accepting new applications and is in the process of being phased out. There are some alternatives, including — as of August 2017 when this post was written — the Rogers Platinum MasterCard and the Chase Marriott Rewards Visa. (ETA September 2019: The Chase cards are no more, but a couple of other options now exist, including the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite, the Scotiabank Gold Amex, the Brim Financial MasterCard, or, if you’re outside Quebec, the Home Trust Preferred Visa.)  If you can grab one of these cards and use it for cross-border purchases, you’ll save a significant amount of money over time.

5. Try on before you go home

Like most petites, you’re probably wary of online shopping because of the extremely high risk that your clothes won’t fit. But if you try them on when you pick them up, you can simply return anything that doesn’t fit.

The shipping depot I use in the US has a courtesy dressing room with a mirror where I can try on all my purchases before I get them home. Which is pretty awesome, because most US retailers offer free returns and exchanges — perks still virtually unheard-of here in Canada but taken for granted south of the border. I’ll sometimes even buy things in multiple sizes if the price is good, knowing I can keep the one that fits and return the others.

If you’re doing this, bring your invoices with you when you go pick up your item. Also make sure you’ll have access to a computer with working internet and a printer at your shipping depot, since many retailers require you to log into your account and print a pre-authorized return label. The shipping depot I use is happy to help me package up and ship back the return package. Always keep a copy of the tracking number just in case of any issues.

Added bonus? You only have to pay tax and duty on anything you actually bring home. The rest of the stuff never crosses the border, so no need to go through the hassle of claiming back money from CBSA later.

6. Get a NEXUS card

NEXUS is a trusted traveller program available to most Canadians that allows us to shortcut the customs and security lines at most airports, use Global Entry terminals when flying into US airports, and use the quick lanes when crossing the border by car. It’s a huge time saver, and — at last check — only costs $50 for a five-year membership. If you’re eligible, you should definitely look into it.

I travel a fair bit for business, and I’ve been a NEXUS member for years. In addition to being a veritable godsend at airports, the card also helps when I’m making a shopping border hop. Speeding through the NEXUS lane on the way down can save me lots of time and hassle.

7. But only use it on the way down

If I’m making a quick border hop to pick up purchases, I generally only use my NEXUS card on the way into the States, unless the wait time to re-enter Canada is really long. You can use it to re-enter Canada, too. But there are some good reasons not to.

See, if you’re not out of the country for at least 24 hours, you don’t have any courtesy allowance of items you can bring back duty free. That means paying tax and duty on everything you buy. Which, don’t get me wrong, is fine. I always recommend being scrupulously honest. You’re factoring it into the price anyway. But the process to declare stuff via NEXUS is a bit cumbersome. You have to fill out a lengthy and confusing form, itemizing everything you buy, its country of manufacture, and a code identifying the type of product it is. You then drop the form in the box on the way across the border, and you’ll get billed to your credit card for the amount owing.

There are a couple of problems with that. For one thing, you have to have copies of the form ready to pre-fill, and it can be time-consuming. Make even a tiny mistake, and it can be considered customs fraud and result in you getting your NEXUS membership revoked or having all kinds of problems crossing the border in the future. A verbal declaration is faster, easier, and requires no paperwork.

For another thing, the CBSA agents at the border have a fair amount of discretion. In theory, you have to pay on everything you buy, every time. In practice, I’ve had days when I’ve driven across, cheerfully declared my purchases, and been waved through by a border officer in a good mood. They can do that, and sometimes you get lucky. If you fill out the NEXUS form, however, you’ll pay the full amount every time.

If you’re out of the country for more than 48 hours and under your duty free limit, then by all means, go ahead and use NEXUS. But if you’re just border hopping to pick up purchases, it’s usually faster and easier to use the regular lanes and declare verbally.

8. Plan bigger purchases around 48+ hour trips

There’s no getting around it: Even with the deals, cross-border shopping can be pricey. Once you factor in the exchange rate, the federal and provincial sales taxes, and the duties, you will sometimes find yourself wincing at how much extra you’ve had to pay for that great dress or pair of shoes. Duties are higher on items made outside of the US, too, which includes most clothes these days.

If you’re buying significant amounts of stuff, you may find that it’s worth timing your purchases around planned vacations or weekend trips south. A short hop is fine when you don’t mind paying the price. But if you’re the type of person who goes to the US on occasion for other reasons, then being out of Canada for at least 48 hours can save you a boatload of money. A trip of 48+ hours gives you a duty free personal exemption of $800 Canadian — which can add up to savings in the triple digits.

9. Shop in tax-free states

If you’re shopping in store, then choose your location carefully, as sales taxes vary by state. For instance, neither Minnesota nor Pennsylvania have sales tax on clothing and shoes. Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon have no state sales tax. North Dakota has a sales tax refund program for Canadians.

If you buy online, this likely won’t matter. But check carefully; some retailers need to charge tax to people shipping within their state. A lot of them strategically incorporate in states with favourable tax laws, but sometimes you’ll find that you get charged tax because of your shipping address.

10. Finally, buy Canadian where possible

The selection of petites clothing is dwindling even at US retailers these days. Cross-border shopping can be a lifeline for many of us, but it can’t solve every clothing dilemma. And ultimately, it feeds into a destructive cycle, where Canadian retailers don’t even bother catering to petites, because they know we don’t shop with them. That gets us nowhere, in the long run.

The only way we will get more selection for petites here in Canada is by demanding it, vocally and loudly. If there are Canadian retailers out there who do offer petite items, we should do what we can to support, promote and encourage them. If there are ones who are getting it wrong, let’s write to their corporate head offices and use social media influence to show them how to get it right. And to the ones who’ve phased out their petites sections, let’s let them know how we feel about their decision, too.

Remember: Half of all Canadian women are petite. There’s strength in numbers. We’re only a niche market if we let them define us that way.

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