UPDATE: Spring brought hope for local retailers

Clark County's taxable sales up 4.1 percent, topped $1 billion




Remember spring?

The weather was warming, the national attitude was brighter and we were doing more shopping.

A state report issued Friday showed Clark County’s total taxable sales increased by 4.1 percent in the three months ending in June, topping $1 billion for the second quarter’s best showing since 2008.

New commercial construction bolstered the figures. Projects such as Cinetopia’s multimillion-dollar Westfield Vancouver mall theater helped boost sales of construction materials and services by 12.5 percent. That category and automobile sales (up 8 percent) were among the top sales generators in Clark County in the three months ending June 30.

Meanwhile, sales at shops and department stores selling clothes, furniture and other nonfood items totaled $479 million in the second quarter, up 3.7 percent from $462 million in the same three months in 2010.

Looking back, the three-month period of April through June seemed more hopeful for retailers and consumers, said Pam Lindloff, a Vancouver retail real estate specialist.

“The sense was that things were going to get better,” said Lindloff, a broker with NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson.

When adjusted for inflation, however, Clark County’s store-only sales numbers become more dismal, said Scott Bailey, the state’s regional labor economist in Vancouver.

“Retail (store only) sales really only rose 1.1 percent, year-over-year,” Bailey said.

Overall prices are up by about 2.5 percent, Bailey said, calling the second-quarter sales increase fairly small when compared with the more robust years of the mid-2000s.

“Until job growth picks up, I would say retail sales aren’t going to grow very much,” he said.

Sorrowful summer

Spring’s good mood changed over the past three months.

National experts are calling the three months through September the worst quarter experienced since 2008, while Clark County’s unemployment rate remains persistently high. Local employers added few jobs in August, compared with the same month last year, for a county unemployment rate of roughly 12 percent.

Business owners worry about everything from the European debt crisis to the U.S. debt ceiling. They are still operating with caution, said Jerry Nutter, president of Nutter Corp., a Vancouver-based commercial excavating and construction firm.

“Everybody is just trying to survive,” he said, adding that his company’s sales are tracking behind last year’s sales, despite the second-quarter bump in taxable construction spending.

Nutter said bids are low and the price of materials is high.

“To me, it really doesn’t look any different than 2010,” he said.

However, Clark County’s retail sector received encouraging news in the three months ending in June, as new players announced plans to enter the market or expand. For example, Portland-based organic grocer New Seasons Market plans to open its first store here in November, while homegrown organic vendor Chuck’s Produce and Street Market makes plans for its second Clark County store.

“Food drives the traffic” to nearby retailers, Lindloff said. That is one reason that national retailer Target is adding grocery sections to its three Clark County stores, she said.

Lindloff categorized basic food staples such as bread and milk as consumable items scribbled down on most everyone’s shopping list.

“If you can get people in on a regular basis to buy the consumables, then you can generate and increase the sales of your other merchandise,” she said.

Hotel-motel sales and restaurant traffic were also among Clark County’s retail categories that improved in the second quarter, compared with the same period last year.

“Those sectors seem to have recovered a little bit more nationally, too,” Bailey said.

Although national retailers were surprised by sales increases during the 2010 holiday season, that’s not expected by Clark County retailers this year.

“Spending is going to stay flat, with small increases,” Lindloff said. “Our unemployment rate hasn’t changed, so folks are now reaching the end of their resources.”

According to the state, fewer of those unemployed workers will find retail jobs during this holiday season. State economists forecast that retailers will hire nearly 13,000 people statewide through December — down from 14,700 over the last three months of 2010.

Statewide, second quarter retail sales totaled $25.6 billion, increasing 2.9 percent from the same period last year. Washington’s store-only sales grew to 3.7 percent, adding up to $11.7 billion.