Mail Boxes International is one of over 20 mailbox stores in Blaine usually bustling with Canadian customers taking advantage of lower U.S. shipping prices. But the stores have been desolate in the weeks since March 18, when the U.S. and Canada made a mutual decision to close the northern border to non-essential travel following Covid-19 concerns.
Brant Baron, owner of Mail Boxes International, said that 95 percent of the store’s customers are currently stuck on the other side of the border. With so many customers absent, dozens of Amazon packages stored in the company’s backroom have piled up, with more deliveries expected in the coming weeks.
Mail Boxes International has kept its normal store hours, but many Blaine mailbox stores now have reduced hours, with business down by 75 percent or more since the border restrictions went into effect.
“Our business is not built with an expectation that the border closes,” Baron said. “I think times like these make you appreciate, even more, the opportunity to be of service.”
Package pickups accounted for 11 percent of border crossings in 2018, according to Laurie Trautman, director of Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.
“There’s a lot of ties across the border. It’s not just about trade, tourism or consumer spending,” Trautman said. “There are these deeper business ties, as well, and those ones are a little harder to quantify because there’s not a database that captures all those.”
Despite the current drop in business, many of Blaine’s mailbox stores are dedicated to staying open to serve their customers. Canadians are still able to cross the border to pick up essential goods, including some checks, prescription medicine and business items, store owners said.
“We have dedication to our customers and that’s why we didn’t shut down,” said Security Mail owner Todd Robinson.
The biggest concern package businesses in Blaine hear from their Canadian customers is how they will receive their packages and how storage fees will be handled. To ease customer concerns, many businesses like Baron’s have waived storage fees for at least a month until after the border re-opens.
“We’re used to the volume swelling quite a bit at Christmas and people waiting to come to pick up multiple parcels at once,” Baron said of his 8,000-square-foot facility. “We’re built for that. So the fact that this isn’t happening during Christmas will leave us in pretty good shape to handle any of the parcels that are sent during this time.”
Despite the sharp drop in package volume, forwarding mail has increased at Mail Boxes International, which has gone from forwarding about five packages per week to at least five per day, Baron estimated.
But a one-pound parcel costs at least $35 to ship across the border, depending on its weight and dimensions, and takes about three weeks to reach its destination, Robinson said.
Robinson said he’s watched as the usual 150 customers per day has dwindled to five.
“We’ve been here for over 30 years so a lot of our customers are regulars who’ve been with us for a long time,” Robinson said. “We’ve built up a good relationship with most of our customers and know most of them by name, so not having that contact of coming in and talking to them, it’s very different.”
Dennis and Pamela Wilson, co-owners of Edge Logistics and Transportation, are less affected by the border shutdown than other businesses because of the company’s broad range of services, including commercial transportation and non-commercial warehouse operations.
The company has facilitated commercial transportation from Canada to Seattle for over 20 years, in addition to parcel pickups and long-term warehouse storage. The 16-employee company, which delivers commercial merchandise from garden to health care supplies, has not yet laid off anyone. It has just reduced its hours.
“We are, for the most part, fully functioning with some internal adjustments to accommodate for the downturn,” Pamela Wilson said of the company, which has experienced a 30 to 35 percent decrease in business. “For the most part, we’re plugging right along every day.”
To accommodate changing needs, the company set up a warehouse in Surrey for residential Canadian customers to pick up their items near the end of March. Picking up items at the Surrey warehouse costs more than if customers were to pick up across the border due to transportation fees, Pamela and Dennis Wilson said.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Dennis Wilson said. “It’s keeping the drivers employed and it’s keeping the freight on the trucks.”
Dennis and Pamela Wilson decided to pay it forward by reaching out to other Blaine warehouses to see if their company could take other stores’ goods to its Surrey warehouse. The company currently has three mailbox stores whose goods it is helping to transport to Surrey.
“Since we have the transportation portion of it and other people don’t, we’re going to reach out and see if that’s the way we can link arms together,” Pamela Wilson said her company, which owns equipment including trucks and forklifts, unlike other similar businesses.
Trautman said the future of the cross-border economy is difficult to predict but she was optimistic about the ties between the two countries.
“This border closure could really impact people’s ability to do cross-border business in a long-term way, or it could be relatively unaffected because the U.S. consumer market is probably likely to come back faster than the Canadian one because it is so much bigger,” Trautman said. “But that will depend on the different government packages deployed in each country.”
Brant Baron at Mail Boxes International said he’s using this time to channel his energy into what he can control and improve.
“We’re able to replace the floor in our lobby while still staying open with regular hours, which would have been absolutely unheard of during normal times,” Baron said.
In addition to renovations, the business is working on a referral marketing program that will start once business resumes as normal.
“There are things we can do to take advantage and redeem the time,” Baron said. “I believe it’s important to focus in times of crisis on what we can control while continuing to pray for those things we can’t control.”