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holiday shopping

In 1996, a Walmart clerk in Fredericton was taken to hospital with broken ribs and a concussion after a crowd of overzealous parents stampeded down an aisle to snatch up a fresh shipment of Tickle Me Elmo plush toys just 11 days before Christmas.

The lesson? When it comes to nabbing the toy at the top of their kids' wish lists, some parents will literally stop at nothing.

And this season, with the loonie hovering near parity with the U.S. dollar, they may be tempted to look across the border for more stock and better deals on wind-up ninja rodents and the latest Wii games.

So, are Canadian retailers competitive with their U.S. counterparts? Surprise: With just over a month to go before Christmas, when it comes to toys your gift dollars may be best spent at home.

"What I've seen from our Canadian retailers are they're being very aggressive on these items," says Johnny Dick, the vice-president of business development with, a website that compiles the best prices on a range of products, allowing customers to comparison shop between domestic retailers and U.S. outlets that ship to Canada.

In an informal survey of major retailers in both countries, the Canadian prices for a sample of this year's top toys were not only comparable to U.S. prices, but in some cases better.

Granted, that's before sales taxes, which increase the relative real cost of shopping in Canada. But it also doesn't include other costs associated with buying American. For example, the U.S. chain Target boasts the lowest prices on many wish-list items, but the company doesn't ship to Canada, so you'll have to factor in the price of gas for that cross-border shopping trip. Meanwhile, only ships some of its products to Canada due to warranty restrictions.

And for U.S. retailers who do ship north, there are additional fees that can almost double the price tag. Take the iDance Buzz Lightyear mp3 player: While on sale at the U.S. Disney Store for a currency-converted price of $20.59 - almost $15 cheaper than the price at Toys "R" Us Canada - shipping and brokerage fees make the actual cost $57.59.

A distaste for extra fees, Mr. Dick says, is one of the reasons online shopping hasn't caught on in Canada the way it has in the United States. A recent Statistics Canada report suggests online shopping is on the uptick here, but it also reports a growing trend of most customers "window shopping" online but making the actual purchase in a store.

Certainly, window shopping seems to pay off more in Canada. While major U.S. retailers rarely differ by more than a few dollars, in Canada an item that's $45 at one store may be $70 at another.

If you're on the hunt for high-end electronics or video games, it's worth considering American purchases, Mr. Dick says. Even with shipping, duties and brokerage fees, you can still score significant deals. And with Black Friday - the day after U.S. Thanksgiving, when sales begin in earnest - coming up, those deals may deepen.

But for most other holiday gift purchases? You'll spend less in Canada - if you can find what you're looking for.

Retailers take a gamble when they distribute holiday catalogues so early and prepare their lists of the "hottest toys of the year," explains Elizabeth Evans, director of the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Sparking early demand for a particular toy comes with the pressure to keep it in stock right until Christmas.

"If retailers had crystal balls, they'd want to have the exact right amount of inventory - it's pretty difficult to predict," she says. "Once Christmas day has come and gone, the demand for many of those items almost completely disappears."

Late last week, Toys "R" Us was already out of stock on GoGo My Walkin' Pup (on sale for $49.97), one of the season's most coveted toys.

Of course, you could still grab one from for a converted price of $47.79, a price that dropped even further early this week. But don't forget shipping, handling and import fees - all added at checkout. Buy American and that robotic dog will actually set you back more than $75.