A Great Time to Shop — for Foreigners

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Tina Fineberg / AP

Lisa Riddick (left) and Vanessa Murray, both from Kent, England, shop at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Gunnhildur Lilja Sigmundsdottir came to Minneapolis from Iceland late last week with nothing but pajamas, underwear and an empty suitcase. But during four days of shopping at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., she snagged a wedding dress, five pairs of shoes and seven pairs of pants. "If I needed anything, I just bought it," she says. "[Currency plays] a very big role because the dollar is so low right now." The United States has the best deals in the world right now — that is, if you're not American.

Overseas shoppers whose countries have a stranglehold on U.S. currency are parachuting into to places like the Mall of America as if they were diplomats — finding deals and flying back to their homelands with their suitcases filled. "They're mentioning the exchange rate more often" as the reason for their visits, says Dan Hildebrant, an assistant sales manager at Oakley, whose sunglasses store in the Mall of America is a beacon for European and Asian shoppers. The numbers are hard to argue with. A Briton shopping at Oakley could buy a $120 pair of newly released Industrial M Frames sunglasses for 60 pounds. Two years ago, the same glasses would have cost more than 70 pounds. A buyer from France can get the same pair for about 80 Euros; just two years ago she would have had to spend 102 Euros.

Lee Preston was lured to the Altamonte Springs mall in Florida because of the favorable rate, flying in from Britain for Black Friday last week. Showing off three expensive watches to his traveling companions, Preston said the dollar's woes have made his trip especially economical. "I'm sorry for you that the dollar's so low but it's nice for me," Preston told TIME. In the shops of Manhattan, British accents are almost as common as those from New Jersey.

It's all part of the sinking dollar's mixed messages to the American public. Mark Bergen, chair of the marketing department at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, says the psychology of the falling dollar can be viewed through two different frameworks. For the pessimistic consumer in America, their buying power is depleting as foreign-made goods become more expensive. But for the optimistic economist, America is merely paying off the trade deficit and boosting its gross domestic product. "It can kind of shake your confidence a little," Bergen says. "It's just kind of a thing that looks bad. But when people are looking at the health of the economy, it can just help in the long run." Bergen says he doesn't expect trends to change anytime soon.

At the Holiday Inn near the Mall of America Tuesday, Evie Walters, director of sales at the hotel, opened a big conference room packed with luggage belonging to Icelanders, whose patronage is especially popular here due to cheap flights and no taxes on clothing and shoes. Most of them, like Sigmundsdottir, come before the holidays and book rooms for about a week, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and leave with over 50 pounds of clothing and toys. "They're power shopping here every day," Walters says. Many interviewed after Black Friday say they spent upwards of $5,000 each.

Although U.S. consumers are feeling the pinch of the waning dollar, both domestically and abroad, the American seller's ear is keen to accented English. At the Mall of America, the number of international visitors has jumped 10% this year, according to Doug Killian, associate director of tourism at the mall. "We're finding in some cases that a shopper might need a pair of shoes, but because the exchange rate is so favorable they'll buy three or four pairs," he says. Sigmundsdottir said one pair of Puma sneakers costs the equivalent of $200 in Iceland, so she bought two pairs at the Mall of America for $89 apiece. "Anybody who's selling is going to love this," Bergen says. With reporting by Michael Peltier/Miami