Clark County consumers spent more in 1Q

Habits changed, with greater emphasis on dining out, electronics, cars

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Clark County consumers dined out more often and spent more on appliances, electronics and cars in the first three months of 2011, compared with the same period last year, the state reported on Friday.

The extra spending added up to a 1.3 percent increase in first-quarter sales, which totalled $927.9 million countywide, according to the Washington state Department of Revenue. Store-only sales generated by traditional retailers — from big-box shops to boutiques — grew to $432 million in the first quarter, a 2.6 percent increase from $421.6 million a year earlier.

The numbers indicate that consumer confidence is beginning to re-emerge, despite the area’s housing slump and its persistently high rate of unemployment, said Pam Lindloff a Vancouver retail real estate specialist.

“People still have the same amount to spend, they’re just spending it differently,” said Lindloff, a broker with NAI Norris, Beggs & Simpson commercial real estate firm.

As an example, she pointed out that grocery store sales fell slightly, by 3.2 percent, to $38 million in the first quarter, while area restaurants gained $3.6 million in sales during the same three months.

“It reflects the fact that during the recession, people were eating at home more and now folks are eating out,” she said.

Statewide, retail sales totaled $23 billion, increasing 1.5 percent from the same period last year. Washington’s store-only sales grew to $10.7 billion, with a 4.2 percent sales increase in the state’s most heavily populated county.

In contrast to the state’s 9.8 percent decrease in construction sector sales, Clark County bucked the trend, delivering a 6.9 percent increase in sales for all building and industrial construction.

The increase was fueled by special trade contractors, said Mike Gowrylow, a spokesman for the revenue department.

“Those are your contractors who do cement pouring and wiring,” among other work, he said.

Department store sales in Clark County suffered a 0.3 percent decline to $144.8 million, while sales at general merchandise stores inched up just 1.6 percent higher to $398 million.

Lindloff attributed the increase to the renewed popularity of dollar stores.

“The discounters have retained and expanded their customer base, especially the dollar stores,” she said. “We’re seeing it here and nationally.”

Lindloff predicted retail sales here will continue to follow the national trends. Major retailers across the nation reported a 6.9 percent increase in overall revenue in June, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

New stores also accounted for a portion of Clark County’s retail sales increase, according to the revenue department. New businesses that were registered after the first three months of 2010 generated $4.8 million, or 1.1 percent of the county’s taxable retail sales in the first three months of the year.

It’s a trend new Vancouver business owner Gail Wickwire hopes will continue.

“I know that our sales are getting better and better every day,” said Wickwire, co-owner of The Enchanted Gift Shop and Tea Room, which opened last year at 502 Washington St.

She wasn’t sure, however, whether to attribute the sales increase to consumer confidence or marketing.

“We’re getting more known, so I don’t know if people are shopping more or if they just know about our store,” Wickwire said. “But, we’re really happy with the numbers.”