Op-ed: Few deals south of border for bargain-hungry grocery shoppers

OBJ consumer columnist Michael Prentice says food savings just not on the menu in New York state
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Even with a new trade deal with the United States, there will probably be little, if any, savings for Ottawa-area shoppers who hop across the border to buy groceries in the United States.

That is my conclusion after a recent half-day trip to Ogdensburg, N.Y. – scarcely an hour’s drive from Ottawa – to test claims that dairy products and chicken, in particular, are far cheaper in the U.S. than in Canada.

There is some truth in this claim. I bought a container filled with almost four litres of milk for little more than half what I would pay in Canada, where dairy prices are kept artificially high by government regulations on production and pricing.

But other dairy products in two Ogdensburg supermarkets cost little, if any, less than you would pay at Loblaws, Walmart, Farm Boy or Costco in Ottawa. And a pound of unsalted butter at the Ogdensburg Walmart was far more expensive than at my local Walmart in Kanata.

The Ogdensburg Walmart’s price for a pound of butter was the equivalent of $5.68 in Canadian funds. True, that was for a name brand. The Kanata Walmart price for its own brand of unsalted butter was $3.97. I find Walmart’s own brands to be just as good as name brands.

Why the discrepancy between the Walmart price in Kanata and Ogdensburg? I put it down to retail competition. The Ottawa grocery market is highly competitive, I believe. In little Ogdensburg, far from any big urban centre, not so much.

However, I found dramatic savings in Ogdensburg on the price of milk. A container measuring 3.78 litres of two per cent milk cost $1.78 in American money at the Ogdensburg Walmart. That’s the equivalent of $2.28 in Canadian money. When I checked the Kanata Walmart price of two per cent milk, it was $4.47 in the (slightly larger) four-litre size.

Do the math: The Ogdensburg Walmart was charging the equivalent of about 60 Canadian cents per litre for two per cent milk. The Kanata Walmart’s price was about $1.12 a litre.

The Ogdensburg Walmart also offered savings on yogurt and ice cream, compared with prices at my Walmart in Kanata. But in these cases, the price gap was much smaller.

I found that Dannon yogurt was only slightly cheaper in Ogdensburg. The price gap was narrowed by the fact the Kanata Walmart had a special offer on this product – three in the 750-gram size for $2 each.

I often hear that Canadians pay more than Americans for eggs and chicken. But do we? The Ogdensburg Walmart was selling 18 large eggs for $1.45 in American funds, which was about $1.86 in Canadian money. The Kanata Walmart’s price at that time: $2.50, not a significant price gap.

What about chicken? Ogdensburg’s Walmart does not sell chicken, so I visited a nearby competitor, Price Chopper. There, I bought a small roast chicken, immediately after it was cooked, for $5.99 in American money. My wife and I had it at home for dinner that night, and it was awful – the most scrawny, fatty chicken I’ve ever eaten. It was no comparison for larger, tastier cooked chicken that my local Costco sells for $7.99 in Canadian money.

Also at Price Chopper, I bought slightly less than one litre of light cream for the equivalent of $4.59 in Canadian money – which turned out to be as big a mistake as the roast chicken. I later found I could buy an almost identical quantity of light cream for about half the price at the Kanata Walmart.

Duty-free trip

I expect consumers to see little or no difference in retail prices on either side of the border, whether or not Canada and the United States ratify their recent trade agreement.

My conclusion: The cost of gas and bridge tolls – $3.50 in Canadian money each way across the St. Lawrence River – will probably wipe out any savings on groceries for cross-border shoppers. But leave Canada with a gas tank almost empty and return with a full tank, and you could save $20 – minus the fuel your vehicle consumes on the trip, of course.

My advice: Combine grocery shopping in nearby New York state with a visit to any of the area’s three really great tourist attractions – the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay and the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg. All are gems.

Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues.