The weakening Canadian dollar has meant fewer cross-border shoppers in Bellingham, but it appears to have had an even bigger impact on retailers to the south.
The Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University released a study that looked at the changes in Canadian shopping in Northwest Washington between 2013 and 2016. The study focused on counting vehicle license plates on Interstate 5 as well as in retail and casino parking lots from Blaine south to Marysville. The license plate counts were done at an overpass near Custer as well as near Bow over nine days in 2016, and compared to similar counts done in 2013.
At the overpass near Custer, Canadian license plate totals were down 23 percent in 2016 compared to three years earlier. At the overpass near Bow, the decrease of Canadian plates was at 45 percent. This suggests that while fewer Canadians were visiting the Bellingham area, an even fewer percentage were going south to Skagit and Snohomish counties, said Laurie Trautman, director at the institute.
This trend shows up when comparing shopping centers. According to the survey, Bellis Fair had 23 percent fewer Canadian vehicles in its parking lot in 2016 compared to three years earlier. The Seattle Premium Outlets had 61 percent fewer Canadian vehicles in its parking lot last year compared to 2013.
The big box stores in Bellingham posted some huge percentage declines when it came to Canadian vehicles, but also had big gains in the number of “other cars” category, most of which had Washington state plates. At the Bellingham Costco, for example, surveyers found 50 percent fewer Canadian vehicles in the parking lot last year compared to 2013. However, the lot had 69 percent more “other cars” during the same period. The survey was done at its old spot on Meridian Street.
The Bellingham Walmart (up 24 percent), Bakerview Fred Meyer (up 22 percent) and Bellis Fair (up 20 percent) also had significant increases in the other car category.
Local cross-border shopping is influenced by what is happening with the Canadian dollar. The loonie was above 95 cents compared to the U.S. dollar throughout most of 2013, even rising above par in January 2013. By 2016 the Canadian dollar was below 80 cents compared to U.S. dollar, at one point dropping to 68 cents.
Casinos also suffered some losses in Canadian traffic. The percentage of Canadian vehicles surveyed at the Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa was down 15 percent in 2016 compared to three years earlier, while the drops were more significant at The Skagit Casino Resort (down 37 percent) and Tulalip Resort Casino (down 38 percent).
Trautman expects the Canadian dollar to remain around 75 cents compared to the U.S. dollar for much of 2017. That could mean similar parking lot percentage totals in the coming months, she said.