With fewer Canadian shoppers, Whatcom County residents stepped up spending in 2016

Sales at new and used auto dealers in Whatcom County in 2016 jumped 14.7 percent year-over-year.
Sales at new and used auto dealers in Whatcom County in 2016 jumped 14.7 percent year-over-year. AP

It appears 2016 was a year Whatcom County residents picked up the slack from cross-border shoppers.

Total retail sales last year in Whatcom County hit $3.9 billion, a 5.6 percent increase compared to 2015, according to a report issued last week by the Washington State Department of Revenue.

In the retail trade category, which focuses on merchandise bought in stores, Whatcom tallied $1.7 billion in sales for 2016, a 2.8 percent increase from the previous year.

Much of the jump in overall retail sales came from wholesale construction spending, which jumped 12 percent to $731.5 million. Sales related to manufacturing also rose 14.6 percent to $84.7 million.

When it came to shopping at businesses, categories that tend to skew more toward Whatcom County residents experienced strong growth in 2016. Sales at new and used auto dealers jumped 14.7 percent year-over-year, while building supplies and lawn/garden products rose rose 6.8 percent.

Categories that are influenced by Canadian cross-border shoppers remained sluggish. Sales in the big-box store category was down 5.8 percent year-over year to $339.2 million, while sales at clothing, jewelry and shoe stores were down 3.8 percent.

Population growth, a little inflation and a job market that was slow coming out of the recession but made big gains in 2016 were all factors, said Hart Hodges, director for the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

Bellingham also continues to grow as a regional retail destination, attracting shoppers from Island and Skagit counties, said Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce. The Canadian dollar spent much of 2016 between 70-76 cents compared to the U.S. dollar, creating some stability in the number of people traveling south into Whatcom County, but at a much lower level than two or three years ago, when the loonie was around 90 cents compared to the U.S. dollar.

In overall retail sales, Whatcom’s $3.9 billion total ranked the county eighth highest in the state, trailing Kitsap County ($4.2 billion) but finishing ahead of Yakima ($3.8 billion) and Skagit ($2.7 billion). King County had the highest total at $59.5 billion.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz