For Whatcom County retailers, the holiday season was not so jolly.
Sales of goods sold in stores were down 5.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to a year earlier, according to newly released data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Whatcom was the only county in Western Washington to post a decline in the retail trade category.
Overall retail sales in Whatcom County were up 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter to $965.9 million. Much of the increase can be attributed to the construction category, which posted a 20.7 percent increase. Across the state, overall retail sales rose 7.7 percent while retail trade — the goods sold in stores — rose 4.7 percent.
The latest numbers indicate a big factor was the slowdown in Canadian traffic into Whatcom County. Sales at big-box stores totaled $99 million in the fourth quarter, down 16.5 percent compared to a year earlier. The number of people traveling southbound through the five border crossings into Whatcom County dropped 18.9 percent in the fourth quarter.
The e-commerce and mail order category totaled $29.6 million, down 10.3 percent, suggesting that Canadians didn’t order as many items online to be picked up at Whatcom County mail service companies. Sales in several categories not typically influenced by Canadians — including auto sales and building supplies — were up slightly.
During the fourth quarter the Canadian dollar was between 72 cents and 77 cents compared to the U.S. dollar. Since that time the loonie weakened further to 68 cents in January but has rebounded in recent weeks to 79 cents.
Even the recent rebound in the loonie isn’t expected to translate into a big rebound of cross-border traffic into Whatcom County, said Laurie Trautman, associate director at Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute.
Trautman said an exchange rate of around 80 cents will still seem weak to many Canadians, particularly as we are still in the shadow of the Canadian dollar’s peak, when it was at parity with the U.S. dollar just a few years ago. She added that price parity between U.S. and Canadian retail goods hits at roughly 85 cents Canadian compared to the U.S. dollar.
“The summer numbers will be key as those are the peak volumes in our region,” she said.
Whatcom County employment also was down in the fourth quarter, which could be a factor, said Hart Hodges, director of Western’s Center for Economic and Business Research. He noticed jobs decline in areas beyond retail in December, including professional services and construction.
Sales of goods in stores along the border also dropped significantly. According to the data, retail trade in the fourth quarter was down 24.9 percent in Sumas and down 20.1 percent in Blaine. Everson (up 15.4 percent) and Ferndale (up 1.4 percent) were the only Whatcom communities in the data to post increases in sales in the retail trade category.
Retail sales were down in a variety of categories in Whatcom County for the quarter, including electronics, clothing and jewelry. Sales were up slightly in furniture and sporting goods.