Musings on the US-Canada price gap

04.17.11

A new BMO report suggests that on average, Canadians pay about 20% more for the same goods and services as our American neighbours do — even though the loonie is above par:

BMO’s survey compared 11 items, including golf balls, Blu-ray movies, running shoes and cars.

There is no denying Canada is smaller and that means less competition, which in turn means higher prices.

But Michael Mulvey, marketing professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, also noted some of the biggest difference in prices between the U.S. and Canada are in the areas where there isn’t free trade, such as telecomunications.

I’ve ranted about the higher telecommunications prices before. Those are due to price-fixing by the corrupt CRTC — something not mentioned in this study.

But for consumer goods where actual competition exists, how do we explain the price gap?

Taxes, for one thing. The study is comparing pre-tax prices, so you might think that’s not a factor. But there are taxes all the way down the chain of distribution, not just at the end-consumer point. That 15% you pay in combined GST and QST is merely the tip of the iceberg. The higher taxes down the line help pay for our essential social programs, like medicare, but they do make things more expensive.

Another factor that is mentioned by the study is the size of the country, and the fact that distribution and shipping is more expensive when you have a sparser population in a less concentrated area. This helps explain why prices would be more in, say, Yellowknife. It doesn’t explain why something retails in downtown Toronto for 20% more than it does across the border in Buffalo, NY.

The rapid rise of the dollar is another factor. When the Canadian dollar was worth 60 cents US, we understood the price gap. Now that it’s above par, it’s frustrating to see this gap. But the price adjustment period takes longer to catch up than the loonie takes to rise in the first place. The gap is closing somewhat — just more slowly than we might like.

But the main reason is merely supply and demand. In a market economy, prices are less about what something costs to produce and more about what the market will bear. We pay more because we pay more because we pay more. It’s circular. If people stopped buying things that were too expensive, the prices on them would drop. They would have to.

Lots of people would like to complain, protest or mobilize to correct this. What they don’t understand is that these prices aren’t being fixed by the government, and the economy cannot – and should not – be centrally managed in order to make people happy.

We do have choices. We can drive down to Burlington or Plattsburgh, shop in lower US dollars, and come back across the border — and pay duty (or not, as every good Canadian knows the tricks of how to avoid that at some point. Not that I’m endorsing that, mind you.) We can order online and pay the extra shipping charges, though the vast majority of US online retailers won’t ship to Canada, frustratingly enough.

Finally, a little perspective: Prices are higher in Canada than they are in the USA, but they’re lower here than they are in a lot of other places in the world, including South America, most of Europe, some places in Asia, or Australia. We constantly compare to the Americans because we’re so close; it’s hard not to get jealous and feel like the outsider with our face pressed to the glass when we get American ads on TV, radio or digital media splashing prices around that are inaccessible to us. But if you saw what people were paying elsewhere for the same items, you might appreciate our prices a bit more.

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