In a sign the local economy continues to bounce back, Whatcom County retailers posted strong retail numbers, even with a weak Canadian dollar.
Whatcom County rang up $913.4 million in retail sales for the first quarter of 2017, an 8.8 percent increase compared to a year earlier, according to the Washington State Department of Revenue. Retail trade – a category that focuses on items sold in stores – totaled $398.7 million, which was also an 8.8 percent increase over the past year.
Local retail sales took a tumble in 2015 and 2016 when the Canadian dollar dropped below 80 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. While the loonie has put a damper on cross-border shopping numbers, more spending has come from Whatcom County residents as well as shoppers coming from the south. That trend showed itself in 2016, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
An increase in cross-border shoppers to Whatcom County isn’t expected anytime soon. The Canadian dollar has rebounded around the 80-cent market compared to the U.S. dollar in the past two months. That hasn’t had changed the cross-border numbers, however. Through July, slightly more than 7 million people have crossed southbound through the five border crossings into Whatcom County, according to data collected by Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.
That’s down 1.3 percent compared to the same period last year, when the Canadian dollar was mostly hovering between 68-76 cents, with one brief rise to 80 cents. Just focusing on the recent loonie rally, the June and July cross-border numbers are still slightly below last year’s totals, according to the data.
The retail sales growth spanned quite a few categories during the first quarter, including vehicles, building supplies and clothing. Even big box stores in Bellingham were able to post a 5.3 percent increase. Those stores took a big sales hit when the Canadian dollar weakened a few years ago.
One industry that has had consistent sales growth in recent years is the restaurant industry, which includes drinking places. During the first quarter, eating and drinking establishments tallied $84.9 million in sales, up 4.8 percent compared to the first three months of 2016. Five years ago, first-quarter spending in Whatcom County totaled $70.3 million.
According to the Department of Revenue, Whatcom County had 456 eating and drinking establishments at the end of March.
Even with the increase in local retail spending, 2017 has been marked by a significant number of closures, particularly from national retailers with physical stores. To date I’ve counted 41 Whatcom County retail closures, which is about on pace for last year’s total of 64, but ahead of the 2015 total of 44 closures. Closures in 2017 resulting in national companies leaving this market include Teavanna, Radio Shack, Rue21, Family Christian, Sears Hometown, Crazy 8 and Wet Seal.
LYNDEN HAS NEW CHRISTIAN STORE
Someone who is very familiar with the Lynden market believes a locally-owned Christian store will fare better than a national chain.
Bill Harman opened Connections Christian Store earlier this month at 1730 Front St. in Lynden’s Fairway Center. Harman was formerly the store manager of the Family Christian store in the same retail center before it closed earlier this year. Family Christian ran into financial difficulties, filing for bankruptcy and closing more than 240 stores in 36 states. That included the Lynden and Bellingham stores.
Harman said in a news release that he’s learned from some of the corporate mistakes and he has used local customer feedback to bring in specific products he believes will sell. Along with greeting cards, Bibles and books, the store offers clothing, gifts, home decor and a children’s section.
Connections is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Details can be found on the store’s Facebook page or by calling 360-366-8917.
Black Forest Steakhouse announced on its Facebook page that it has closed its Barkley restaurant in Bellingham and is currently looking for a new space. The company’s Blaine restaurant remains open and the Black Forest steaks will be added to the menu at Whiskey’s Burger Bistro in Fairhaven. ... Sown Designs, which makes a variety of leather accessories such as wallets and purses, is opening a new design studio at 1220 Central Ave., in the Waterfront Artists’ Studios near Maritime Heritage Park. Owner Shelby Sneva is planning to have an opening celebration 6-10 p.m. on Sept.1 during the Art Walk. The event will have food, art, live music and a raffle. Details about the company can be found on its Facebook page. ... Best Buds Gaming Lounge is open for business at 1121 McKenzie Ave. and has scheduled a grand opening celebration Sept. 29-Oct. 1. The all-ages lounge offers food, beer, tabletop gaming and video game areas. Details can be found on its Facebook page.