Whatcom had a record year in retail sales. Here's what we bought.

Cars for sale along Bellingham's Iowa Street in November 2017. Cars were a hot seller last year, with sales rising 18.5 percent compared to 2016.
Cars for sale along Bellingham's Iowa Street in November 2017. Cars were a hot seller last year, with sales rising 18.5 percent compared to 2016. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County had a busy 2017 when it came to buying things, especially cars and building materials.

Local merchants rung up more than $4.2 billion in sales last year, according to the latest data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. That's a 9.3 percent increase compared to 2016. Retail trade, which focuses on items sold in stores, totaled nearly $1.9 billion, also a 9.3 percent increase compared to 2016.

The biggest jump among the major retail categories was in new and used automobiles. Sales totaled $314.3 million last year, an annual increase of 18.5 percent. Building materials also posted a significant increase, rising 11.5 percent to $246.5 million.

Online sales rose 9.9 percent to $106.5 million.

Big box stores, which had a few years of sale declines locally after the Canadian dollar weakened in 2015, also bounced back. Sales totaled $356.2 million in 2017, a 5 percent increase.

Sales at restaurants and dining establishments also rose and is now one of the biggest categories locally. In 2017 sales totaled $365.4 million, a 5.7 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The big rise in auto and building material sales is a sign of strong spending by local residents, said Guy Occhiogrosso, CEO and president of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Those are not typically items purchased by cross-border shoppers or influenced by changes to the Canadian dollar.

At Toyota of Bellingham, sales in 2017 were the best in the 40 years of the dealership, said General Manager Julian Greening. The dealership is off to a fast start in 2018, with May being on track to be the dealership's best month ever.

Greening said 2017 was a strong year for sales across the U.S., with one factor being the economy. During the years following the recession people held off on buying new cars. In the past few years people have started trading in old cars in greater numbers.

One other trend he's noticed is the increase in the sale of trucks and sport utility vehicles. He estimates that right now that category represents 75 percent of the dealership's total sales, with 25 percent cars.

At Bellingham's Hardware sales, not only was 2017 a busy year, but so far this year sales are tracking about 10 percent higher, said Floor Manager Donald Newman. Much of increased sales activity is coming from contractors building housing and commercial projects, he said.

The store has also seen a big increase in its service department after recently acquiring General Chainsaw Supply. The store's rental department has also had a very strong May, helped by the warmer weather.

The retail sales numbers also showed how much shopping is done in Bellingham. According to the data, $2.7 billion, or 64 percent of total Whatcom County sales were generated in Bellingham. Lynden had the second highest Whatcom community total at $316 million, followed by Ferndale ($228.4 million) and Blaine ($189 million).

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz