01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mexicans Stream Across Border, Save Retail In Tucson

Tucson is a border town. The rest of the country may follow Mexican border stories intermittently but here we get a daily dose. And right now there's a border story that's bringing smiles to the faces of retailers across the region.

Because here in Tucson, Mexicans may be saving Christmas.

Tucson retail establishments have always depended on visitors from our southern neighbor to bolster sales. From La Encantada, Tucson's upscale shopping center and home to Tiffany's and Louis Vuitton, to Macy's and JC Penney's at Tucson Mall, stores are happy to see Mexican visitors. "When I worked in retail," recalled one local businesswoman, "we had one couple who would come up from Mexico once a month. Our sales that day doubled, sometimes tripled because of them. And this was right after 9/11 so the economy was down then too. They usually brought a van full of friends. We loved it."

But this holiday season the flow of southern shoppers may not just be a bottom-line boost, it may be what keeps the doors open for business. While retailers across the country struggle to survive some shops in Tucson are counting their blessings in the form of pesos. Many Tucson retailers now discuss our border proximity with a smile. A worker in the food court at Tucson Mall gave me one such broad grin when discussing Mexican visitors. "The families who come up spend all day here. They shop, they eat, the kids get ice cream later in the day. It's been awesome."

Last week the Arizona Daily Star gave a similar report; local retailers are not just welcoming Mexican shoppers, they're depending on them. In a December 7 article entitled "Tucson retailers place holiday hopes on shoppers from Mexico", the Star noted one fact that should give local retailers a reason for optimism; the current recession is not hitting Mexico as hard as the United States, and last month saw consumer confidence in Mexico rise. Another reason Mexican families might venture north could be the increase in drug-related incidences over the last few months. In October the U.S. State department issued a traveler's warning for Mexico, noting the increase in violence especially in border towns including Tucson's neighbor, Nogales. The State Department warning included the following:

A number of areas along the border are experiencing rapid growth in the rates of many types of crime. Rates for robberies, homicides, petty thefts, and carjackings have all increased over the last year across Mexico generally, with notable spikes in Tijuana and northern Baja California. Cuidad Juarez, Tijuana, and Nogales are among the cities which have recently experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues. Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Tijuana, and along Route 15 between Nogales and Hermosillo.

In the light of such instability, a shopping excursion to Tucson might sound very appealing to a Mexican family.

While holiday shopping this weekend I conducted my own non-scientific survey while I strolled across the parking lot at Tucson Mall. The lot was completely full, circling cars slowly followed anyone with shopping bags in hand. As I walked the length of the parking lot I simply counting parked cars with Mexican license plates. Mexican license plates are a common sight in this area, but I was still astonished by what I found. On that Saturday afternoon, in that one shopping center, one out of every four parked cars was from Mexico.

So the next time I hear Lou Dobbs launch into one of his famous immigration tirades, I'll think of the retailers in Tucson, and maybe send Mr. Dobbs a message from the Old Pueblo. Feliz Navidad would be most appropriate.