Canadians continue to shop in Whatcom. Here are the most popular shopping spots

Despite a Canadian dollar that’s remained weak for several years, a new report shows shoppers from British Columbia continue to play an important role in Whatcom’s retail sector.

Last month Western Washington University students working for the Border Policy Research Institute dropped by the retail parking lots in Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, checking to see what percentage of the vehicle license plates were Canadian.

Students counted nearly 10,300 license plates Thursday through Saturday. The institute, which is based at Western, then compared those numbers to portions of similar surveys done in 2013 and 2016. More sampling will be done in December and March to provide better comparisons.

While just a small snapshot, the September survey provides some insights on Canadian shopping patterns in Whatcom County:

In September, Ross Dress for Less had the highest percentage of Canadian license plates, at 45%. That was followed by Silver Reef Casino, 43%; Costco, 39%, and Trader Joe’s, 27%. The Ross store was a strong draw for Canadians in the 2016 and 2013 surveys, said Laurie Trautman, director at the institute.

In terms of raw numbers, Costco had the most vehicles with Canadian plates at the time of the survey, followed by Bellis Fair, Ross and Silver Reef. Those four parking areas accounted for half of all the plates counted, according to the survey, which looked at 31 retail parking areas.

The parking area near Sierra Trading Post, HomeGoods and Hobby Lobby has a strong following from the north, with 24% percent of the vehicles displaying Canadian plates. Those three stores opened in 2018.

Of the 10,299 plates counted, 13.8% were Canadian. That’s down from 20.7% in 2013, when the Canadian dollar was nearly at par with the U.S. dollar.

Last month’s percentage is nearly identical to the 2016 survey when the Canadian dollar was around 76 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. The loonie has remained around this level for the past three years and is currently at 76 cents.

The number of U.S. plates surveyed last month totaled 8,879, down from 9,691 in 2013 and about the same as 2016.

On that September Saturday, the parking lots surveyed were 72% full, compared to 73% for the same time period in 2016 and 76% in 2013. The parking lots were less full on Thursday and Friday.

Blaine showed higher percentages of Canadian shoppers last month compared to the same period in 2016. The downtown area had 32% Canadian plates among vehicles surveyed in September, up from 23% in 2016.

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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.