Written by Hiram Soto - Enlace Staff Writer   

Shoppers stretch their dollars in Mexico

Supermarkets see an increase in sales

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Tomatoes for 31 cents a pound. New York strip steak at $3.26 a pound. A big box of Kellogg's cereal? That will set you back $1.70.

Groceries in Tijuana have always been less expensive than across the border, but the peso's recent slide means shoppers paying with dollars can rack up bigger savings.

The San Diego Union-Tribune compared the price of a dozen items at Calimax, a leading supermarket in Tijuana, and at the Ralphs in Hillcrest.

The items – including bread, beef, diapers and some fruits and vegetables – cost 60 percent less in Tijuana.

“Everything has gotten even cheaper,” said Hernán González, an executive at Calimax.

Shoppers have taken notice, especially the thousands who live in Tijuana but work in San Diego County – and who get paid in dollars.

Often, they used to buy their groceries north of the border, particularly in bulk at stores such as Costco, but increasingly, they are shopping at home as U.S. prices have spiked.

Sales revenue at Tijuana supermarkets has increased 25 percent to 30 percent in the first three months of the year compared with the same time in 2008, according to the Tijuana Supermarket Association.

González said Mexican supermarkets offer many brands familiar to Americans, such as Oroweat bread, Chips Ahoy cookies and Special K cereal, at a cost 30 percent to 40 percent less than in the United States.

That's because these items are made in Mexico, where production costs and the cost of living are much lower. On average, Mexican workers earn around $2,000 a year, though 40 percent of the population earns $550 a year, according the World Bank.

Dollar-based deals

Shoppers stretch their dollars in MexicoThe price difference is even greater now because the dollar buys more in Mexico. Last summer, the dollar was worth 10 pesos. But in the past eight months, the exchange rate has been floating between 13 and 15 pesos because of economic turbulence in Mexico and other major world markets.

All that adds up to significant savings for consumers paying with dollars in Mexico.

Take beef. At Calimax, the most popular cuts cost an average of $2.10 per pound, González said.

“You have the same for less, and you also have Mexican products,” he said, important for immigrants living in the United States who are hungry for authentic foods. “It's the best of both worlds.”

How much shoppers who live in the United States would save depends on how they usually buy groceries – whether in bulk at Sam's Club, Costco or another warehouse store, at a major supermarket chain or at a high-end grocer.

Safety first
Shopping in Tijuana poses some challenges and requires planning.

A chief concern is safety. In the past year, people suspected of involvement in the drug trade have been killed or their bodies found in the area closest to the border, where several supermarkets are located. Still, the zone is considered among the safest in the city. Police patrols are augmented by tourist police and video surveillance of major thoroughfares.

Another worry are the long waits to cross the border. Although traffic has dropped off recently, delays make transporting perishable food risky.

U.S. shoppers also need to know what can be brought across the border.

There is no master list of permitted items because the importation of goods is regulated by several federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The admissibility of some fruits and vegetables depends on the presence of pests and on periodic contaminated-food alerts.

Generally, fruits such as bananas and strawberries can be brought into the United States, as can pasteurized products such as milk, yogurt and butter. Also allowed are beef, fish, cooking oil and desserts.

The items that are banned include pork, raw chicken and some fruits, including apples and oranges.

U.S. customs agent Hector Baez, agricultural branch chief for the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, said the most commonly confiscated items are pork sausages, mangos and avocados.

“A lot of people know that ham is banned and they buy turkey instead, but unfortunately, unless the turkey comes in a sealed package that lists all the ingredients, we have to confiscate it because it can contain small quantities of other meats, like pork,” Baez said.

Baez said fines for trying to bring in banned agricultural products cost $300, but consumers can avoid them by declaring everything in their shopping bags, even if they include banned items.

Bargains and tariffs
Tomatoes are among the items that shoppers can bring into the United States, and they are now a bargain. They cost 31 cents per pound at the Calimax store, while the Ralphs store sold the same variety for $3.49 per pound.

Mexico recently imposed tariffs on dozens of U.S. imports, including food items. But González from Calimax said he didn't expect prices to rise because Tijuana is in a duty-free zone.

Salvador Espinosa, an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, grew up in Mexico City. He predicts the value of the peso “will be volatile for a time.”

That's good news for people like Nicole Grimes, who works in San Diego but lives in Tijuana. On a recent day, beef, diapers and dessert items filled her shopping cart at Calimax.

“You have to take advantage of it while it lasts,” she said.

Freelance writer Omar Millán González contributed to this report.
Hiram Soto: (619) 293-2027; This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
Hiram Soto: (619) 293-2027; (Contact)
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