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Whatcom County retail stores were busy in 2018. What were people buying?

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Stores that have been staples of the American shopping tradition for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why it’s so hard for retailers to stay open.

Furniture, electronics, appliances and sporting goods were hot items in Whatcom County stores last year, according to the latest data from the Washington State Department of Revenue.

Overall Whatcom sales totaled $4.5 billion in 2018, a 7.3% increase compared to the previous year. Retail trade, which focuses on products sold in stores, jumped 7.5%.

While the 7.3% increase in overall retail sales is better than a typical year for Whatcom County, it was actually below the state average of 9.6% in 2018, according to the report. King County was up 9.7 percent, while Pierce County rose 9.4%. Kitsap County was up a whopping 13.8%.

Last year’s sale totals suggest the growth came from northwest Washington shoppers rather than from Canadians. Sales at Whatcom big box stores, which are influenced by cross-border traffic, hit $366.4 million, a rise of only 2.9%.

The specialty stores did quite well: In a category that includes sporting good, book and toy stores, sales jumped 15.9%. Electronic and appliance store sales were up 14.8% while furniture store sales were up 12.8%.

Of the cross-border shopping that was happening, it appears to have helped the north Whatcom communities in 2018. Retail trade surged 35.3% in Sumas to $18.8 million, while Blaine’s retail trade jumped 13.5 percent to $73.1 million. Lynden’s retail trade was up 8.9% to $115 million.

Restaurants and drinking establishments have become one of the biggest retail categories in Whatcom County, bringing in $383.4 million in sales from 584 establishments.

The industry in Bellingham dwarfs the rest of Whatcom County: At $281 million, Bellingham’s bars and restaurants brought in more money than the overall retail sales of each Whatcom County community except for Lynden in 2018.

It’ll be interesting to see where Whatcom retail sales go in 2019. It’s been a tough year for national retailers, with thousands of chain stores closing across the U.S. in the first half of the year.

So far in 2019 Whatcom County has been impacted by national chain store closure announcements (Payless Shoes, Office Depot, Zales, Boston’s and Charlotte Russe are a few examples), but other aspects of the economy appear solid.

Whatcom’s unemployment remains relatively low, coming in at 5.2 percent in March. Unless there’s a big change in the Canadian dollar (it’s remained steady in the 74-cent range compared to the U.S. dollar), cross-border shopping isn’t expected to be much different.

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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.

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