Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Dollars

I normally wouldn’t get into economic discussions on a blog devoted to SF, but recent currency capers have forced the issue. The soaring Canadian dollar – the Loonie, and the spanking of the US dollar are starting to have an impact on my geeky purchases, and not in the way they should.
For years, bookfiends north of the 49th have had to resign ourselves to dual prices on the covers of books – the US price being 20 or 30 per cent below the listed Canadian value. Insult was added to injury with provincial and national sales taxes slapped on top to pump up the price even higher. But the end was seemingly in sight a few weeks ago as the Loonie closed in on parity with the dollar – a feat not seen since 1976. The Loonie is now more-or-less at par with the US dollar. And, in fact, trading on some days has seen the value of the Loonie exceed that of the greenback. Experts agree it will probably stay this way for quite a while as the Canadian economy continues to boom and the US economy struggles with the housing loan crisis and crippling debt and deficits.
This age of high dollar values should be a time for Canadian sci-fi nuts, generally some of the highest-volume book-buyers, to be rejoicing in the streets, tossing our coke-bottle-lens glasses into the air in celebration of higher purchasing power. We should be teetering out of the store with even bigger stacks of the latest volumes by Robert Charles Wilson and Jack Whyte and Naomi Novik and others than we usually would.
But it hasn’t happened. Not yet, and probably not for a while. And I am right pissed off about it.
Go into any Chapters (Canada’s biggest book retailing chain) and they’ll rub their hands gleefully together as they scan each book into the till and rack up the outdated Canadian prices, even though we should be paying the US value. Comedian Tommy Chong (of 70’s Cheech and Chong fame), who lives here in Vancouver, was on a local radio morning show not long ago and mentioned he’d gone into a corner store to buy a magazine, noted the huge difference in price despite parity of the dollars, and, wanting to pay less, told the cashier he’d be paying in US currency and asked her to ring the magazine through in its American price. The cashier refused and told him they weren’t accepting US dollars. Not accepting US dollars? In Vancouver? In Canada? That’s unheard of. While this is a fairly extreme example, it shows that merchants are definitely cashing in on the dollar parity and listed price discrepancy. And they seem fairly determined to ride this pony to the bank for as long as they can at the expense of the Canadian consumer. In a recent newscast, I heard one national retail association state that retailers probably wouldn’t be changing their elevated prices for another 2 years (2 years!!!) as they wait to see if the dollar parity will last. Meanwhile, they certainly won’t shed any tears for the extra profits they’ll be tucking away courtesy of Canadian consumers. Oh sure, in a rare move for a manufacturer of publicly-accessible goods, Porsche has announced its dealerships will be lowering their prices by 10% to account for the Loonie’s rise, and that’s nice, but come on, as an average consumer, I’m not going into my local Porsche dealership once or twice a month (in fact, not ever) to pick up the newest items on display. It’s the bookstores and the record stores and the DVD dealers and the (insert the list of retailers of pan-North American goods ad infinitum) that I want to see price reductions at. I had a conversation with someone at a small, independent bookstore today who said she’d heard some of the publishing houses were going to be re-labeling books with lower prices to reflect the Loonie’s value in about two months. Two months? I’ll believe it when I buy it. And why not now? I’ll admit some ignorance about the industry and retail practices behind the scenes, but why not give consumers a break and just scan – or manually code in – the US prices so we’re paying fair value?
It raises the question of why I should even be buying books north of the border at all any more. A couple of weeks ago (when the Loonie was in the 96-97 cent US range), my wife and I drove down to Seattle for a day of shopping. One of our stops was at the Eliott Bay Book Company, where I tottered out with a little over a hundred dollars worth of sci-fi books. The same stack, if purchased back home, would probably have gouged me for about $150 – before tax. Even with the duty coming back across the border it was cheaper than buying these books at home. Before, I was pretty discriminating about buying books in the US – I’d only go for items that I couldn’t find here at home. Now, looking at the pricing racket, it’s actually smarter to do most of my book-buying there and only come into my local book retailers to buy the Canadian authors I can’t find down south. I’ve gotta admit, I’m not entirely comfortable with that, given that I want to support local Canadian independent bookstores like White Dwarf where there’s a relationship with the staff. But if it’s a question of saving 10 to 50 bucks (depending on the size of the purchase), money tends to talk. With most of Canada’s major cities being fairly close to the border, this is an option many of us might choose that could leave non-responsive local retailers in the lurch (local tourism boards are already getting pensive about this very possibility – retailers and manufacturers would be wise to listen to their concerns). Although I pity those in more northerly communities that don’t have the option of a quick drive south for a day of shopping (though internet purchases could offer an alternative and would save them from being hassled by overzealous US border guards who don’t quite understand that the vast majority of bad people move north across the border, not south).
I have to wonder if this sort of thing happens in other parts of the world where different currencies with competing values exist side-by-side. Does this take place in Europe, or has the Euro evened things out between the national currencies? Or, is it not an issue in Europe with media like books, CD’s & DVD’s because of language differences? I’d be interested if anyone knows.
If there’s anything positive in this whole nonsense of a theoretically higher purchasing power with a stronger currency being stymied by retail/manufacturer greed, it’s the disincentive to buy (though not buying, while helping the personal pocketbook, doesn’t do the economy any favours). If I’m petulant enough about the unfair price differential, I’m far less likely to go out and buy more books. That lets me whittle-down the towering pile in my in-box/to-read/new acquisitions box and, having made some headway against the tide of new books, lets me do a little re-reading of old favourites. Of course, the reality is that money saved on fewer book purchases can never really stay in the bank for long… the holidays are coming and my wife’s got her eye on some new jewelry. At least with an ever-increasing stack of new books, I could cry broke. Mind you, with book prices remaining unfairly high, I probably still can.

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