EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Little by little, Mexican shoppers are returning to El Paso – a trend local merchants hope translates into pre-pandemic year-end sales.

Foot traffic was noticeable up Wednesday in stores south of Paisano Drive in Downtown El Paso compared to Monday and wait times at the three northbound international bridges were longer than usual for the first time this week, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

“I think Friday and Saturday we’re going to see an uptick in the amount of people that come in. And as we get closer to Thanksgiving and Black Friday, we’re expecting a substantial increase in foot traffic and automobile traffic,” said Tanny Berg, founding member of El Paso’s Central Business Association.

The U.S. on Monday reopened its borders to non-essential land travel after 20 months of COVID-19 restrictions that kept most Mexican citizens from lawfully coming across the shop or visit family. El Paso leaders were expecting large crowds coming across due to pent-up demand, but the rush did not materialize.

Wait times Wednesday at the Bridge of the Americas. The blue bars are normal wait times, the orange line were the actual wait times. (Courtesy CBP)
Wednesday wait times at the Paso del Norte Bridge. (Courtesy CBP)
Wednesday wait times at the Ysleta-Zaragoza bridge. (CBP graphic)

Juarez residents like Yadira Gutierrez discovered online shopping and the value of goods available to them on their side of the border.

“Since the (COVID-19) pandemic started, we’ve seen how convenient it is to shop here and support the Mexican economy,” Gutierrez said on Wednesday.

But now that fully COVID-19 vaccinated foreign nationals can cross into El Paso to shop, the Juarez Chamber of Commerce is launching a media campaign to keep them home. It’s called “El Buen Fin,” or The Good Weekend and it starts on Friday.

“We have better services and, in some cases, better products and people don’t have to cross (the border), they don’t have to wait in line nor run the risk of (Mexican) customs seizing their merchandise when they come back to Mexico,” said Rogelio Ramos, president of the Juarez Chamber of Commerce.

The battle for Juarez shoppers is high stakes. According to Thor Salayandia, president of the Juarez Entrepreneurial Council, government-mandated Christmas bonuses and personal savings mean residents of that Mexican border cities will have $500 million in disposable income in the next two months.

“Juarez’s money has wings. A great portion of it goes to the U.S. side. Another portion ends up with transnational and national store chains, so that money leaves the city as well and local businesses have little left,” Salayandia said. “Juarez needs more than The Good Weekend. It promotes sales but what’s missing is that profits go to local businesses.”

Salayandia said local merchants will be launching an additional television and social media campaign this year called “Time to Buy in Juarez” (“Es Tiempo de Comprar en Juarez).

Berg of the Central Business Association said he’s aware of the competition and that it won’t be easy to win back Juarez shoppers that have done without El Paso for nearly two years.

“Yesterday I had breakfast with the owner of S-mart, a chain of 90 stores in Juarez. He says in the course of the last year and a half Mexican nationals who are used to coming to El Paso to buy stuff learned that a lot of things they came to buy here they can buy over there,” Berg said. “Maybe it’s not quite as inexpensive but is it worth waiting an hour or two hours at the bridge to save a few cents?”

Berg said businesses on the U.S. side of the border have enjoyed the advantages of cost, quality and quantity. The same merchandise found in El Paso stores is likely more expensive in Juarez because of high Mexican import fees, he said. And while stores like Dillard’s, Macy’s and others can have 500 suits or dresses on display at any time, the largest Juarez stores may only offer 50, he added.

“We have to be thankful they’re coming back and treat them as guests. We all have to be ambassadors. If they come to shop or eat or visit their relatives, we need to make them feel like the family they are,” Berg said.