Roll off the highway into Blaine, Washington, and the first thing you’ll notice is Edaleen Dairy; on a summer day, a dozen people might be lined up outside waiting for ice cream. Across the street from Edaleen is 5D Packages and its competitor Mail Boxes Plus. Turn onto H Street, which passes for a main drag, and before you hit the US Post Office, you’ll spot 24/7 Parcel, Border Mailbox, and Security Mail services.
Take a right at the post office and loop back around to Peace Portal, and you’ll also find Blaine Enterprises, Pulse Packages, and Hagen’s mail pickup.
That may seem like a lot of mailbox stores for a town of 5,000 people, but Blaine isn’t just any small town: it sits right on the 49th parallel that divides the United States and Canada. As the only US border town located in the shadow of a major Canadian city, Blaine’s economy is uniquely dependent on the relationship between the two countries. It’s a position that also leaves the town vulnerable to the vagaries of e-commerce trends and exchange rates.
That vulnerability has only been exacerbated by mounting tension between Washington, DC and Ottawa, an emerging trade war, and the looming threat of a boycott.
For the past decade Blaine has flourished, thanks to the discrepancy between the explosion of e-commerce in the US and the still-developing e-commerce network in Canada. Blaine’s handful of residents have grown accustomed to a regular stream of Canadians who come to town specifically to pick up their US packages. For these Canadians, Blaine is simply a mailing address: the nearest, cheapest, and most convenient way to order packages from Amazon and other major US retailers.
But as Amazon continues to step up its Canadian operations and a growing number of American (and Canadian) retailers have made it easier to ship to Canada, Canadians are no longer as dependent on their US mailing addresses.
Between economics and politics, Blaine will soon be forced to reckon with an uncomfortable question: is there a future for the town if it no longer serves as Canada’s front porch?
It wasn’t too long ago that Blaine boasted only a handful of mailbox options. Then came the dawn of online shopping. As e-commerce operations for major US retailers like Macy’s, J.Crew, and Best Buy took off in the early 2000s, they tempted Canadian shoppers who were already familiar with the brands.
Although Amazon hung out a shingle in Canada in 2002, its operations were initially limited by regulations intended to protect Canadian publishing. While Amazon.com expanded into more product categories, Amazon.ca contained only a tiny fraction of its US offerings well into the 2000s. And Canadian retailers were in no rush to match the e-commerce boom of the US: imagine selling to a population the size of California’s, but shipping products across the entire land mass of the United States. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.)
As a result, Canada’s armchair shoppers were left to drool over the online offerings of retailers to the south — many of which, if they could be delivered to Canada at all, arrived with an unpredictable bill for shipping, taxes, and / or customs duties.
Just as US e-commerce was taking off, the Canadian dollar went through one of its rare periods of strength (even surpassing the US dollar at various points in 2011-2012), making it that much easier for Canadians to shop in US dollars. No wonder Canadians close to the US border soon opted to ship directly to the States: the selection was larger, shipping was cheap or free, and customs duties were often nonexistent (depending on your honesty at the border and on the moods of the border agents).
I’m one of those cross-border e-shoppers. As a dual citizen who has spent many years living on each side of the border, my Blaine mailbox, Trader Joe’s, and Target runs have allowed me to scratch my American retail itch even after settling in Vancouver.
My family set up our Blaine mailbox in 2010, and we now make monthly pilgrimages to pick up such elusive goodies as Hanna Andersson’s kid clothes (cheaper to ship to the US), a round of Rent the Runway outfits (won’t ship to Canada), or a new set of drinking glasses (so much more expensive on Amazon.ca, you wouldn’t believe it). These pilgrimages became even more frequent when Ben & Jerry’s stopped distributing New York Super Fudge Chunk in Canada. Once you’ve committed to hitting Blaine for a monthly ice cream restock, you might as well order some shoes, board games, or toilet paper from Amazon.com.
Cross-border shoppers like me have helped drive a major boom here, swelling Blaine’s population from a sleepy 3,770 in 2000 to an almost-bustling 5,075 in 2017.
That impact is felt not only in the number of parcel shops in town but also in the volume of business they’re doing. An employee at 24/7 Parcel told me that their customer list has grown from about 8,000 to nearly 40,000 in less than five years.
There are so many parcel shops, in fact, that it’s causing a disturbance. “People are annoyed to see more and more parcel places open when they’d rather see a bakery or grocery store,” said a local diner worker. “We used to have another grocery store, but it closed 20 years ago. We used to have a bakery, but it closed.”
Spend an hour at 24/7 Parcel, and you’ll see a magnificent cross-section of Canadians and their purchases.
A father and daughter unboxed two massive boxes of premium puppy treats for their beloved huskies. A young man hobbled up the shop’s six steps on crutches to pick up a pair of Rockports and a mysteriously long package. A woman unboxed a bra and underwear while comparing notes with me on the hazards of buying underwear by mail.
While this particular mailbox operation is notable for its self-serve lockers, a staffer is also available to help with oversized items, package returns, and — maybe most importantly — fashion advice on the unboxed purchases.
The real impact of all these Canadian shoppers is felt the most at City Hall — or more accurately, City Floor. The City of Blaine now does business out of the top two stories of an office tower that the city purchased from the enterprising businessman who’d dared to dream that the city needed a four-story building. That’s where I met with Jeffrey Lazenby, the city’s revenue officer, who recalled a time when city staff worked out of a run-down edifice with mushrooms growing out of the damp carpets.
All that changed, thanks to the e-commerce boom and state tax policies.
Lazenby traced Blaine’s revenue windfall to a sales tax agreement that was put in place in the mid-2000s which allowed states to levy sales taxes based on where a package was delivered, rather than where it was sold. Though the agreement only led to municipalities keeping a sliver of those state sales taxes, that sliver can really add up when you’re the point of delivery for tens of thousands of Canadian residents. In 2017, Blaine collected nearly £1.7 million in sales tax, which is two to five times the amount collected by comparably sized towns not on the Canadian border.
That £1.7 million in sales tax isn’t all earned from Canadians who are buying discount housewares on Amazon: some of it comes from local purchases or online purchases by actual residents of Blaine.
But between the sales tax and a penny-per-gallon gas tax that’s largely paid by the many Canadians who cross the border to fill their tanks, Lazenby calculates that taxes paid by Canadians make up 5-10 percent of the city’s revenues. And that’s just the direct revenue. Lazenby estimates that three-quarters of Blaine’s employment is related to the border in some way.
But just as Amazon.com helped drive Blaine’s cross-border boom, Amazon.ca now calls Blaine’s future into question.
In the past two years, Amazon’s Canadian arm has driven up growth in its Prime memberships, introduced same-day delivery in select cities (including Vancouver), and vastly extended both the range and number of products available in its Canadian store. That strategy is paying off: according to Canadian financial analysts, the company’s Canadian revenue grew from £2 billion in 2014 to £3.5 billion in 2016.
If you want an indicator of Amazon’s growing commitment to a Canadian presence, look no further than downtown Vancouver. Amazon recently purchased a monolithic building that, until recently, served as Vancouver’s main post office and one of Western Canada’s largest mail-processing facilities. (You’ve probably seen this historic building in one of the many sci-fi TV shows and movies filmed in Vancouver.) The company recently announced that it is redeveloping the building to house 3,000 software engineers and other corporate types.
Even habitual cross-border shoppers like me can now hold out hope that Amazon may eventually close the persistent, puzzling, and much-discussed price difference between US and Canadian prices for many items.
But what’s good news for Canadian shoppers could be bad news for Blaine.
Just a few years ago, the city manager named Amazon the number one contributor to the city’s sales tax base. And you only need to eyeball the piles of Amazon boxes in the recycling bins of local mailbox shops to know that it still dominates among Canadian shoppers. Now, Canadians can not only get their electronics, books, and housewares from Amazon.ca, but they can also access a comparable range of clothing, shoes, and other goods.
So it’s unlikely that they’ll still submit to the hassle of cross-border package pickup.
Improved Amazon.ca shipping isn’t the only threat to Blaine’s e-commerce economy. If Amazon sets up its own lockers in Blaine — as Amazon.com has in more than 50 US cities and Amazon.ca has in Toronto and Vancouver — it’s hard to imagine that more than one or two of Blaine’s mailbox shops will be able to survive.
Until then, the City of Blaine will continue to reap the benefits of Amazon Canada’s shortcomings and the town’s unique geographical location. The residents of Blaine will have to endure the polite hordes of Canadians who sojourn here regularly, congesting local roads, patronizing the booming parcel economy, and emptying grocery-store shelves of their favorite products.
And as long as Rent the Runway refuses to ship to Canada, I’ll be one of them.
GoDaddy is better known for its web hosting service, but it has long offered easy website building tools, too. The recently rebuilt GoCentral is a more modern replacement of its earlier product, GoDaddy Website Builder. GoCentral now delivers mobile-friendly, responsive-design websites, but the service imposes stricter limits on what you can place and where you can place it on your webpages than most.
If you just want to get a site up without lots of tweaking, GoCentral could be for you, but you may want options available in the competition.
Pricing and Starting Up
You can start building a GoDaddy Central website for free, but after a month you need to pay. Plans start at £5.99 per month for the Personal level and range up to £19.99 per month for the Online Store level. That last level has come down from £29.99 the last time I reviewed the service, making it competitive with other site builders: Wix costs £17 per month for the store level, Duda costs £22.50 per month, and Squarespace’s stores start at £18 per month.
But GoCentral doesn’t put any limits on storage, bandwidth, or pages, which is a plus. GoCentral accounts don’t include a custom domain. You can purchase one for as little as 99 cents per year, though you’ll want to add £7.99-per-month privacy protection to that.
Before you can start building or even see any site templates in GoCentral, you must create an account, which can be done via Facebook or by signing up with an email address and password. There are no ad-supported free accounts like those offered by Duda, Weebly, and Wix.
Before you choose a template, GoCentral’s startup wizard asks you what your site is going to be about and what name it should have. At this point, on my first test site, the wizard picked a template for me based on my previous answers.
On another try, I was presented with a gallery of nine choices, and the service can generate more, too. The designs are modern and attractive, though there isn’t a whole lot of variety. On choosing one, you see a page showing how a sample site using the template looks both on desktop and mobile.
Site Building Interface
The interface is clear, simple, and uncluttered.
At top left is a button for Dashboard, taking you to promotion options like adding a Facebook Page and implementing SEO settings. On the right side you get a three-entry menu consisting of Theme, Pages, and Site Settings. Be careful to use a wide enough browser window, though, since the site builder’s own responsive design hides the menu if your window is too narrow.
You can easily change your design template from the Theme selector. There were only eight themes for me to choose from, but there were some good-looking options including one with a full background image. You can customize themes to some extent using a limited selection of colors and fonts.
The interface strongly resembles that of Squarespace, but the section-insertion points where you can add content elements, such as text and images, now use plus signs rather than Squarespace’s teardrop icons. The right-side menu panel for this is completely text-based, without the typical visual hints about what kind of objects you can add. Most builders include simple choices like Photo and Text Box, but GoCentral offers the less descriptive Content menu choice, from which you can find four layout choices that include text and image boxes.
Rather than dragging and dropping, you simply click on a content type to add it to a page. The interface is touch-friendly, with big buttons that respond well to taps on my Windows 10 touch screen.
You can also attach files for download, videos, calendars, image galleries, and buttons for social network shares. But you’re severely limited in that you can only insert predesigned sections.
You can’t simply add a photo or text box where you like. No other site builder I’ve reviewed limits your design possibilities to this extent. For those who don’t want control over the look of their site but would rather have all the design choices made for them, GoCentral is a good fit.
Company reps made the argument to me that small business owners shouldn’t be concerned about the precise placement of elements, but rather that the site delivers page views and hence business. They claim that back-end AI optimizes GoCentral-built sites to those ends.
You add a page via the Pages menu item on the right-side panel, but there’s no selection of page types, such as contact, about us, or blog. You just give the page a name and then start adding content sections to it.
The newly created page is completely empty, save for a header and footer. Fortunately, you can add a single section choice, such as Contact Us or Events, to build entire pages for those purposes. The Contact Us section, for example, includes a text box for describing how and why a user should contact you, an address field, business hours, a contact form, and a map of your location.
You can also simply add a link page to send viewers offsite. You can reorder pages with drag and drop, but to create a site hierarchy, you use the Dropdown menu choice from the Add page panel. This isn’t as intuitive as other site builders that let you drag a page below another and indent it to create a page hierarchy.
You can now make individual pages, but not the entire site, private by requiring a membership sign in.
Your Blog on GoCentral
Since my last look at GoCentral, its developers have added blogging capability. As with everything you add to a page in the site builder, the blog comes in the form of a section–you don’t add a blog page type as you do in most builders. When I added a blog to my test site, I was offered three design options, two of which were nearly identical.
In the middle of the blog section is the intuitive Start Writing button. After clicking this, I noted that the feature is still labeled Beta. But I like that it takes me to a separate blog manager in the dashboard, rather than simply having me enter standard page content.
This lets you keep track of posts. You don’t get as many elements as some other site builders offer in their blogging tools; some let you add any page element available to standard site pages. With GoCentral, my only choices were image and divider–of course in addition to text.
You can create and assign Categories to posts, and anything you enter in a post is automatically saved as a draft.
You can then post at will, but you can’t schedule posts for specific dates and times. Unfortunately, when I published a post, it didn’t appear on the site section I’d added it to, even though I could view it via a link from the blog manager. It turned out that this was because of a bug that GoCentral has since fixed based on my feedback.
There’s no feature for automatically notifying site members about your new blog posts via email, but GoDaddy representative told me that that’s in the works.
Working With Images
As mentioned, you can’t just add an image where you like on the page. Two of the Content options include photos, one as a grid and the other as a single image next to text. If you don’t like the positioning of that image, too bad.
There’s no way to move it or change its alignment. Want to add another image? Sorry.
You can choose from a limited set of stock images for these Content photos, and now you can even search for them; competitors like Wix offer far more in the way of stock art, though some images require a licensing fee.
Galleries are a somewhat different story. There are only four design choices for Galleries, though they are nice-looking ones, and you can add as many images as you like. There’s a single large slideshow option with arrows at the sides; the same but with a title atop; a full-page-width gallery of contiguous images; and a large image with thumbnails below to open more images.
You can upload multiple images at once, and once they’re uploaded, you can use them in any photo space on the site. There are absolutely no image-editing tools tools here, aside from rotating and zooming. Most site builders include at least some of this type of functionality, and many integrate the excellent Aviary online image editor.
This section of the main menu is where you configure your site’s domain, social settings, SEO (see below), and more.
You can restore your site to a previous state from here, since GoCentral creates backups each time you publish or change the site theme design. Site Settings is where you can add a custom site icon, aka favicon, to distinguish your site on the browser tab. Finally, from Site Settings you can track your Facebook ad performance, too, using a Facebook Pixel code.
A Small Business Website Builder
There are a few ways to start your website bringing in cash, both in the form of page sections: You can upgrade to the Online Store account level, add a PayPal button, or display ads using Google AdSense (which is frowned upon in today’s web, and doesn’t really produce income).
The PayPal button content section is more than just a button, however. You can add descriptive text and an image. There are also two Donate options that look good and work just as you’d expect.
When I clicked to add a Store section, a page with a GoDaddy phone number displayed, rather than simply letting me upgrade online.
You can, however, go back into your account page and purchase the upgrade online. When I upgraded to the Online Store account level, a Shop page was added to my site. You then add products in a simple interface that allows a photo, name, price, sale price, custom categories, SKU, and description.
You can also specify color and size options. There’s also excellent help with inventory and shipping options, with UPS and USPS integrations. You can get paid through Stripe and PayPal, both excellent services.
You get professional-looking shopping cart and checkout pages, and you can even have text messages sent to you about incoming orders. One thing you cannot do is sell downloadable files. The Business Plus and Online Store account levels include a spiffy email marketing tool.
This lets you blast a template-based email out to all those who signed up for membership on your site. You get choices of sales campaigns, events, and standard newsletters. It’s a flexible and customizable tool, letting you track responses and schedule mailings.
The site builder has also recently added Appointment scheduling with payments (handled by Square), calendar syncing, and email and SMS notifications.
Mobile Site Editing
This is going to be a short section. GoCentral does create a functional, good-looking responsive mobile website based on the desktop site you build. But you have absolutely no control over the mobile presentation.
Even the very responsive-centric Squarespace gives you some options when it comes to your mobile site presentation, and many site builders like Wix let you customize the mobile view considerably. Then again, none of this may matter to you; my test website looked quite good and functioned as expected. The other side of the mobile coin–actually editing your site from a mobile device–is an extra advantage of GoCentral.
You can do just about anything in a smartphone browser that you can do in a PC web browser, including changing the theme and adding sections and images.
Publishing Your Site
Just about every edit you make in GoCentral is automatically saved. Unlike some site builders, GoCentral gives you good control over when your site is actually published. At any time during editing, you can hit Preview to see what the site looks like in its current state.
The preview shows both desktop and mobile views. When you do finally decide it’s time to publish your site, you get a choice of URL and domain name. You can either connect a paid custom domain, or use a free one on the godaddysites.com domain.
SEO and Stats
A search engine optimization option starts you off with making your site look appealing to web search engines.
Simply press the blue Start Optimizing button, and you’re taken through a wizard. The wizard proposes keywords and phrases and populates your page title and metatags. It also proposes content areas into which you should add the keywords.
People who are new to site building should be aware that their site most likely won’t appear in web search results until they submit and verify the site with the search engines. Another site-promotion tool creates a Facebook Page based on your site. I just had to add a street address and phone number to get the page, which translated quite well from web to Facebook.
You can also add a Google Business page for your site, though integrations with Yelp and TripAdvisor are not yet offered. As for tracking how your site’s traffic is doing, there’s no stats option in the account dashboard. It’s buried in Settings, but you have to manually set up a Google Analytics account to see anything about your site’s activity.
This is one aspect that goes against the simplicity of the rest of this site builder, and it’s not something that layperson site builders probably want to deal with.
Easy, Attractive, Limited
GoDaddy’s new site building tool is one of the simpler options available, and it can deliver good-looking sites for both desktop and mobile viewing. That said, it’s also one of the most limited services in terms of giving you control over your site’s appearance. The lack of photo editing, mobile customization, and built-in site statistics may put off some would-be site builders.
The service is still fairly new, though, and GoDaddy reps assure me that new features will be added.
Though GoCentral looks promising, at this point our website builder Editors’ Choices, Duda and Wix, provide richer offerings, as does the highly rated Squarespace.
Bottom Line: GoDaddy’s new website builder is easy to use and delivers good-looking responsive-design sites, but it doesn’t allow lots of tinkering with page design.
- ^ website building (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Wix (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Duda (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Squarespace (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ image-editing tools (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Aviary online image editor (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Facebook Pixel (www.facebook.com)
- ^ shopping cart (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ email marketing tool (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ domain name (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ How to Create a Website (uk.pcmag.com)
After months of delays and leaks, Microsoft is finally unveiling its new Xbox Live Avatars. Originally scheduled for last fall, the new avatar system will be available to Xbox Insiders later today to test before being broadly rolled out to all Xbox One users. The new avatars will let you fully customize your online character with body type options, clothing, and props.
Microsoft is starting its testing by letting Xbox One users access the new Avatar Editor.
It’s an app that includes customizations for avatars, and Microsoft says it will add accessories, props, moods, clothing, and appearance categories in the future, alongside more content after launch. Microsoft’s Xbox Avatar Editor lets you customize body, face, hair, makeup, limbs, and even fingernails. All the options include color pickers, and the ability to buy additional items from an avatar store.
Microsoft’s new avatars will also be integrated into the Xbox One dashboard. “Right now, we’re only turning on the Avatar Editor itself, but Xbox dashboard integration will be coming soon to Insiders,” explains Bradley Rossetti, Microsoft’s Xbox Insider Team Lead.
The new Xbox Avatar Editor will be available by 12PM PT / 3PM ET for Xbox Insiders on the Alpha and Alpha Skip Ahead rings.
Microsoft hasn’t revealed exactly when the avatars will launch for all Xbox One users.