Whatcom County retailers had a sluggish holiday shopping season while the rest of the state experienced steady growth.
Overall retail sales in Whatcom County grew 3.4 percent in the fourth quarter compared to a year ago, according to new data from the Washington Department of Revenue. Retail trade, a category that focuses on items sold in stores to consumers, rose just 1.1 percent locally in the fourth quarter.
Statewide, overall retail sales rose 7.1 percent while retail trade was up 5.4 percent in the final three months of 2014.
The data indicates a slowdown in cross-border shopping was already taking place at the end of 2014, even though the Canadian dollar was still relatively strong. Fourth-quarter sales in the general merchandise category, which focuses on big box stores, totaled $118.5 million in Whatcom County, down 6.3 percent compared to a year earlier.
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Some categories that are less influenced by Canadian shoppers experienced some growth. For example, sales of new and used cars totaled $57.6 million in the fourth quarter, up 12.1 percent compared to a year ago.
One category that’s usually influenced by Canadian border traffic that continued to grow was e-commerce/mail order. In the fourth quarter sales totaled $33 million, up 8.1 percent compared to a year earlier.
The sluggish retail sales in Whatcom compared to the rest of the state shows how a small change in the Canadian currency can impact the county, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
During the fourth quarter, the Canadian dollar weakened from about 90 cents compared to the U.S. dollar to about 85 cents. The loonie dropped further, to about 78 cents, in the first quarter, but has recently bounced back to nearly 83 cents.
While the drop in Canadian traffic led to slower retail sales, lower fuel prices may have resulted in local residents having extra money to spend, thus lessening the impact, Occhiogrosso said.
One trend he has noticed among Bellingham’s large retailers is that they have adjusted accordingly, a sign that they watch the Canadian currency closely.
“Many of the large retailers are here because of the local market; the Canadian traffic is a bonus because it comes and goes,” he said, adding that the difference is in the employment adjustments they make when the Canadian dollar fluctuates, rather than in business closures.
RETAIL SALES BY COMMUNITY
A look at the retail sales and retail trade numbers for the fourth quarter of 2014, inMs, with the percentage difference from the fourth quarter of 2013:
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