Shrugging off a weak Canadian dollar, Whatcom County retailers experienced a strong holiday shopping season.
Taxable retail sales totaled just under $1.05 billion in the final three months of 2016, according to new data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. That’s the highest total ever recorded in one quarter for Whatcom County and was an 8.4 percent increase compared to the fourth quarter of 2015.
Retail trade, which focuses on items sold in stores, totaled $476 million in Whatcom County last quarter. That’s a 6.4 percent increase compared to the year before.
Even the category that focuses on big box stores showed sales growth in the past year. Sales in that quarter totaled $101.5 million, a 2.5 percent increase over the fourth quarter of 2015. That category had seen declining sale totals as the Canadian dollar dropped below 80 cents compared to the U.S. dollar in early 2015.
Several factors appear to be at play to explain the jump in sales, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.
With the Canadian dollar around 74-76 cents compared to the U.S. dollar for much of those three months, cross-border traffic only saw a small dip, declining 2.2 percent year-over-year. Bellingham also continues to grow as a regional retail destination, attracting shoppers from Island and Skagit counties, he said.
The biggest factors were population growth, a little inflation and a job market that was slow coming out of the recession and started to improve more noticeably into 2016, said Hart Hodges, director for the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.
Whatcom County new and used car sales jumped 26.8 percent to about $73.7 million, making it one of the few retail categories that experienced double-digit growth. Items purchased for major construction projects – up 17.7 percent. Sporting goods and toys experienced a 3.9 percent decline.