Business

Tough first quarter for Whatcom County stores

Travelers use the NEXUS lane heading north to Canada at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine in 2015. The slowdown in cross-border shopping was a factor in the decline in Whatcom County store sales in the first quarter of 2016.
Travelers use the NEXUS lane heading north to Canada at the Peace Arch Border Crossing in Blaine in 2015. The slowdown in cross-border shopping was a factor in the decline in Whatcom County store sales in the first quarter of 2016. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The weakening Canadian dollar continued to hamper sales at Whatcom County stores during the first three months of the year.

Sales at stores in the county totaled $366.7 million in the first quarter of 2016, down 2.7 percent compared to a year earlier, according to new data released by the Washington State Department of Revenue. Sales at Whatcom County’s big box stores were hit particularly hard, down 16.9 percent for the same time period.

Overall taxable retail sales, which includes construction spending and wholesale trade, were up 5.6 percent year-over-year in the first quarter locally to $795.2 million. That’s below the state increase of 8.9 percent, according to the report. Store sales in Washington rose 5.1 percent.

First-quarter store sales were down sharply in the border communities of Blaine (down 22.4 percent year-over-year) and Sumas (down 20.7 percent). Lynden was able to post a 3.4 percent gain in store sales, while Ferndale was basically the same year-over-year. Bellingham store sales were down 1.6 percent.

In January the Canadian dollar dropped to 68 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, which contributed to a slowdown in Canadians crossing into Whatcom County to shop. The number of people traveling in privately owned cars southbound through the Blaine, Lynden and Sumas border crossings during the first quarter was down 12.6 percent compared to a year earlier, said Laurie Trautman, associated director at Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.

Trautman said at this point, she believes that cross-border sales have begun to stabilize.

“I think it has been long enough now that we have experienced, and perhaps adjusted to, the ‘new normal’ of the value of the Canadian dollar,” Trautman said in an email.

Sales in several retail categories typically geared toward local shoppers continued to grow. Motor vehicles and parts grew 3.9 percent, while building materials/garden supplies were up 2.1 percent. E-commerce, which is strongly influenced by Canadian shoppers particularly in the border communities of Blaine and Sumas, was down 4.2 percent.

Whatcom County restaurants posted strong sales numbers in the first quarter, rising 4.2 percent compared to a year earlier.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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