With plenty of openings and closings, Whatcom’s retail scene has a new look for 2019

Hobby Lobby was one of three large retailers to arrive in Bellingham in 2018, providing a boost to local retail sales.
Hobby Lobby was one of three large retailers to arrive in Bellingham in 2018, providing a boost to local retail sales. The Bellingham Herald

It’s been a relatively stable year for Whatcom County’s retailers, but a few changes are coming in 2019.

With retailers wrapping up the holiday shopping season, it’s a good time to reflect on what happened this year and what it might mean for 2019. Here are a few of the big things that happened in local retail this year:

Old Costco building gets filled: While the rise of online shopping has meant plenty of closures of brick-and-mortar stores across the U.S. this year, Bellingham added three big stores in the spring in the former Costco building on Meridian Street.

The square footage of Hobby Lobby, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post totaled more than 110,000 in the shopping district, contributing to a boost in retail sales. According to data from the Washington State Department of Revenue, retail sales for big retail stores in Bellingham were up 6.6 percent in the second quarter (when the three stores opened) compared to a year earlier. In the hobbies/crafts category, sales rose 26.5 percent for the same time period to $19.1 million.

Heading into 2019, Bellingham doesn’t have many large empty and available retail spaces, but there are a few for national retailers considering this market.

Big year for retail sales: While official numbers for the second half of the year aren’t available yet, the first half of 2018 showed record highs in retail spending across Whatcom County.

It appears several factors contributed to the boost. Along with the additions of places like Hobby Lobby, more Canadians were coming into Whatcom County despite a weak Canadian dollar, partly because gas prices were much higher in British Columbia compared to Whatcom County. An unemployment rate of under 5 percent and a boost in higher-paying construction jobs may have also been factors for increased spending.

Store closures: While Whatcom retail spending was up, closures of both big and longtime retailers were a part of 2018. The biggest announced retail closure in 2018 was Kmart, which is closing its Sunset Square store after more than 40 years.

A few longtime businesses are saying good-bye in 2018, such as Lee’s Drive-In, which closed in October and Bellingham Public Market, which closed in August. Other examples include Everybody’s Store and Buyer’s Market, which are expected to close at the end of this month.

While Whatcom County had some longtime businesses close, overall it was a fairly typical year. With a few days left in 2018, I’ve counted 62 retail closures this year, similar to the 2017 and 2016 totals of 68 and 64, respectively.

What’s ahead in 2019: Retailers and restaurant owners will have plenty to ponder starting on Jan. 1. The minimum wage will rise 50 cents to $12 per hour on Jan. 1, while the state’s Family Leave Act gets going next month. That may guide management decisions when it comes to staffing and hours in the coming months as they adjust.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.