New program helps Whatcom County retailers accept Canadian debit cards

It’s no secret Canadians bring major business to Whatcom County retailers.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom County Chamber of Commerce and Industry, knows the economic benefits from cross-border shoppers are hard to overstate.

“We have significant impact from Canadians here,” Oplinger said.

A Montana company has teamed up with the chamber to introduce a program for Whatcom County store owners that will allow them to accept Canadian Interac PIN debit cards with special upgrades to their card-reading machines.

The Canada Certified program, developed by NXGEN Payment Services of Whitefish, Mont., should help solve ongoing payment difficulties for Canadian shoppers and open up more business opportunities for local retailers, said Brian Strodtbeck, the program’s area manager.

“A lot of people don’t even realize this is a problem, when it’s a tremendous problem,” Strodtbeck said.

Canada’s Interac cards use computer chips instead of the magnetic strips in U.S. debit cards to complete sales.

Many U.S. retailers, including most stores in Whatcom County, are not set up to accept the Canadian cards.

The Interac PIN card is massively popular with Canadian shoppers. Since its introduction in 1994, the card has become the prefered method of payment for the nation’s consumers.

When paying U.S. merchants, most Canadians wind up having to pick either cash or credit cards, and using credit can incur international transaction fees.

Canadian commerce presents big opportunities for American retailers.

Around 300,000 people cross the U.S.-Canada border daily, and American trade with the Alberta province alone is larger than trade with either India or Brazil, according to American Consul General statistics cited by NXGEN.

The Canadian government also recently quadrupled the amount of duty-free merchandise Canadian citizens can bring back from trips to the U.S.

NXGEN will set up retailers with machines capable of accepting both American and Canadian debit cards.

Strodtbeck said the cost of specific upgrades would depend on a business’ need and the existing equipment they have. The minimum startup cost would be $90, he said.

“It just kind of depends on their situation and what they need to make it happen,” Strodtbeck said.

Receipts from NXGEN’s machines show payments in both U.S. and Canadian dollars, which is helpful for Canadians who’d like to see how much they’ve paid in their home currency right away instead of having to check at their banks back home, said Anne Britz, the program’s promotional coordinator.

Businesses who sign up receive window signs branded with the Canada Certified logo to place in store windows, allowing shoppers to see which locations offer the service.

Additionally, the company plans to organize promotional campaigns for participating business through Facebook and Twitter pages directed at shoppers in British Columbia, Britz said.

Oplinger said the program could benefit a variety of Whatcom County industries, including appliance retailers, auto dealerships and repair shops and even sellers of farm products.

“The thing that we like about this package is it takes different ways you’re going to interact with Canadians and packages them together,” Oplinger said.

NXGEN has set up similar programs in various Montana locations, as well as in Spokane, Wash.

Britz said the program would likely expand to other areas along the U.S.-Canadian border.

“There just so much potential,” Britz said. “Different communities are reaching out to have us tell them more about the program, so we’re just trying to keep up.”

Strodtbeck said in addition to helping American businesses capitalize on an increase in Canadian shoppers, the Canada Certified program might also help nudge U.S. financial institutions toward adoption of debit cards utilizing computer chips instead of magnetic strips.

Most major economic powers, particularly in Europe, use cards with chips, which tend to be more effective in fraud defense, he said.

Strodtbeck said he thought it would be inevitable that the U.S. would eventually make the switch at some point in the future.

“We really hope our program will help create that drive,” he said.

Retailers interested in learning more about the Canada Certified program can call 866-553-4355 or email

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