Whatcom County set another record for retail sales. Here are three reasons why.

The Bellingham HomesGoods store on Meridian Street opened in 2018.
The Bellingham HomesGoods store on Meridian Street opened in 2018. The Bellingham Herald file

Just-released numbers show Whatcom County retailers were busy last spring, ringing up a record number of sales.

Taxable retail sales in the second quarter totaled more than $1.14 billion, the highest quarterly total ever in Whatcom County, according to data released by the Washington State Department of Revenue. The second quarter total was a 6.2 percent increase compared to the same period in 2017.

What was behind the strong retail growth? Here are three factors:

High gas prices brought Canadians into Whatcom County.

Last spring high gas prices prompted Canadians to come into Whatcom County, particularly the border towns of Blaine and Sumas. According to the data, retail trade, which focuses on items sold at businesses, was up 19.1 percent in Blaine and 53.2 percent in Sumas year-over-year for the second quarter.

During the second quarter, nearly 3.6 million people crossed southbound across the five Whatcom County border crossings, according to data from the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. That’s a 14.7 percent increase compared to the second quarter of 2017.

The difference between gas prices in British Columbia and Whatcom County was wide last spring. In late March prices were hovering around $1.50 a liter (around $5.67 a gallon in Canadian dollars at the time), while gas in Whatcom County was averaging around $3.23 a gallon, according to AAA Washington.

Shoppers increased spending on products for the home.

Last spring was very strong for categories involving the home, according to the data.

In the sporting goods category, which includes books, hobbies and crafts, Whatcom County sales totaled $23.4 million in the second quarter, up 24.3 percent compared to the same period last year. Sales in the electronics and appliances category were up 17 percent, while furniture/home furnishings were up 14.5 percent.

Hobby Lobby opened in early June and HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post opened in late April.

Car sales, which had a strong 2017 and early 2018, were down 7.5 percent year-over-year. Big box stores, such as Walmart and Target, continued to bounce back, rising 7 percent year-over-year in the second quarter.

Whatcom’s economy was in good shape last spring.

The unemployment rate for Whatcom County remained under 5 percent for the entire second quarter, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department. It continued its downward trend in the coming months, hitting 3.9 percent in September.

Last spring was also a time of strong job growth, particularly in the building industry. Construction companies were also gearing up for summer jobs that included several school projects that totaled more than $100 million.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269; @BhamHeraldBiz.