Shops that you’d expect to see in a seaside town line Peace Portal Drive in downtown Blaine — restaurants with outdoor seating facing Drayton Harbor, an ice cream parlor, and consignment and antique shops.
Mixed in are an increasing number of storefronts of a different type — package receiving businesses.
The greater Vancouver metro area, home to 2.3 million residents, sprawls south all the way to the border, a few blocks from downtown Blaine. A growing number of those Canadians are shopping online and saving money on international shipping costs by sending their packages to one of the 15 package receiving businesses in Blaine, which hold packages for a fee until their owners pick them up.
Canadians ship to the United States for several reasons. Some U.S. companies don’t ship to Canada, or if they do, they charge extra shipping fees. Some that do ship to Canada only offer free shipping to the U.S. Often, by picking up a package in the U.S., Canadians can avoid paying Canadian sales tax.
“If they come down here and pick it up and declare it at the border, more often than not they just get waved through without paying duties and taxes,” said Roger Benetti, owner of Pulse Packages on Peace Portal Drive. “They’ve seemed really lax since I opened the business.”
It can even be faster for Canadians to pick up a package in the U.S. and take it through customs themselves rather than to have a shipping company do it for them, Benetti said.
Parcel receiving businesses aren’t new in Blaine, but the industry exploded in the last three years, with eight or nine new businesses opening, said Carroll Solomon, board member of the Blaine Chamber of Commerce. The chamber keeps a list of the official businesses, but Solomon said it doesn’t include some small businesses that people operate out of their homes.
Parcel receiving businesses exist in U.S. border towns from coast to coast. Vancouver, B.C., is the closest major Canadian city to the U.S. Border, so Whatcom County has a lot of these businesses. Lynden and Sumas also have package receiving businesses, but not as many as Blaine.
Benetti lives in South Surrey, B.C., and has worked in Blaine for 15 years. When he started shopping online, he saved 30 to 50 percent by having his stuff shipped to Blaine, he said.
“The main reason I think people are doing it is value,” Benetti said. “The other big thing is there are different products down here that you can’t even get in Canada.”
With online shopping and the market for package receiving businesses growing, Benetti opened Pulse Packages two years ago. It was an easy opportunity, he said, because he had extra space in the building he owns for operating his other Blaine-based business, Rach Incorporated, which sells uniforms to government institutions and international schools.
Benetti’s customers are 99 percent Canadian, and they pick up everything from shoes and clothes to bicycles, camera equipment and car parts. Most customers live near Vancouver, B.C., but Benetti has one customer who lives in Whistler, B.C., more than three hours and 130 miles away.
Benetti expects business to double after Thanksgiving, when people start shopping online for holiday gifts.
Online shopping, especially for holiday gifts, continues to grow nationally. USPS expects to deliver 12 percent more packages this year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve than it did last year, according to its website.
For his service of receiving packages and storing them for up to 30 days with no extra charge, Benetti charges $2.50 per package.
“It’s a good business. It’s different for me since it’s an add-on business. My overhead and stuff is covered by my other business, so it’s easier to make a profit charging $2.50,” he said.
Pulse Package’s pricing is typical of these businesses. Prices for a package under 100 pounds vary, but most businesses charge $2.50 to $5.00.
For packages that weigh more than 100 pounds, Benetti usually directs his customers to one of the bigger receiving businesses in town—Edge Logistics.
The package receiving section of Edge Logistics’ 90,000 square-foot warehouse has two 20-foot-tall steel racks stacked with cardboard packages. In between, there’s a 6-foot-tall pile of boxes that owners Dennis and Pamela Wilson said will become a brown mountain in December.
Edge Logistics accepts big packages for both businesses and people. Four truck wheels and tires are stacked at one end of Edge’s receiving area, and a 500-pound BMW motorcycle balances on its kickstand nearby. They even get vintage cars on occasion, Dennis said.
Heavier packages at Edge Logistics cost $18. Unlike the storefront businesses on Peace Portal Drive, Edge Logistics, in the industrial area east of town, has forklifts and three loading docks.
Dennis and Pamela Wilson started their parcel receiving business five years ago. They already ran a shipping company that moved freight from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., so they had warehouse space. Now, package receiving is about 25 percent of their business, Wilson said.
They know the hassles involved in shipping commercial freight across the border. There’s paperwork, goods and sales tax, harmonized sales tax, maintaining records of the transaction, getting a licensed broker to clear the items. Pamela and Dennis Wilson do that stuff everyday for their shipping business. Pamela Wilson blames the process for her gray hair.
When Canadians take their packages back to Canada, they don’t have to deal with any of that.
In the five years since Edge Logistics started receiving packages, they went from getting a few packages a day to about 800 a day last December. They expect to do even more business this December. On average, the number of packages they receive has increased about 75 percent each year. Dennis Wilson said starting the enterprise is one of the best decisions they’ve made with Edge Logistics.
Edge Logistics’ ability to handle large packages and freight sets them apart from most other receiving businesses in Blaine, Dennis Wilson said. But they handle small packages as well. They charge $5 to pick up a packages less than 100 pounds.
“It blew me away when this thing really started to kick in a couple years ago. I would work at the front desk just so I could get a better handle on it,” Dennis Wilson said. “One gal waited in line at the border for 45 minutes, and she was getting a box of specialized candy for a wedding. I asked if it was worth it and she said ‘Oh God yeah.’”
Dennis Wilson once saw a man open his package and pull out a telephoto camera lens. The owner said it would have cost $600 in Canada. By ordering from a U.S. company and having it shipped to Blaine for free, the customer said he paid $350.
“For him, he’d gladly wait in line for an hour,” Dennis Wilson said. “A number of these Canadians come down and say ‘we’d love to support our country but there are times when you just can’t.’”
Like Pulse Packages, much of Edge Logistics’ business comes in a month-long burst between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
To prepare for December, they added more shelves to the warehouse, extended their hours to be open on Sundays, and hired three more warehouse employees. They’re currently open six days a week, but they’re planning to be open seven days a week soon, they said. On December mornings, people form a line at the door before the warehouse opens.
Edge Logistics stores packages for up to 30 days without charging an extra fee, so holiday shoppers let their orders accumulate.
“They come down here and give us their name and account number and we’ll go and grab it,” Dennis Wilson said. “Sometimes it’s one box, sometimes its five, 10 or 15, and off they go.”
After waiting in line for 30 minutes to cross the border into Blaine, Sarita Minhas of Surrey stopped at Edge Logistics to pick up a package of makeup her daughter ordered on Amazon. Afterward, she continued south to shop at Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham.
Minhas hadn’t used a parcel receiving service before, but she said she might for holiday shopping.
“I’d say the majority of people [in Surrey] don’t know about this,” she said. “They just shop on Canadian websites.”
Dennis Wilson thinks parcel receiving businesses continue to grow for two reasons: more Canadians are finding out about these businesses and more people are shopping online and getting free shipping.
“As long as these stores like Amazon and Target are competing against each other and offering free shipping, we are the benefactor,” he said.