Accelerated auto sales and a rise in construction projects helped boost third-quarter sales by 4.7 percent in Clark County, according to a state report issued Friday.
Area retailers expect to post an even bigger fourth-quarter increase, despite mixed signals on the national and global economic front; penny-pinching consumers have been replacing everything from worn-out home furnishings to vehicles that went too long without servicing.
“Sooner or later, every car meets its maker,” said Jon Creedon, owner of the Vancouver-based Vancouver Auto Group dealership, off state Highway 500 and Andresen Road. “Frankly, these last four years. People have held onto their car longer than ever before.”
Sales of new and used automobiles in Clark County increased by 11 percent year-over-year, to $86.2 million, in the three months ending in September, according to the just-released figures. Overall Clark County activity subject to retail sales — which includes retail store sales and all other sectors such as construction of buildings and heavy highway construction — increased 4.7 percent to $1.1 billion in the three months from July through September.
In part, the increases reflect work on a handful of state road construction projects, said Mike Bomar, executive director of the Southwest Washington Contractors Association.
“There’s some pretty decent-sized road projects,” Bomar said.
The work in Clark County includes a $50 million widening of state Highway 14 through Camas and Washougal, a $48 million interchange construction at state Highway 500 and St. Johns Boulevard in Vancouver, and the $135 million Salmon Creek interchange project.
“I would imagine a lot of purchases for those projects happened in the third quarter,” Bomar said.
Retail trade — which includes sales of clothing, building materials, furniture and housewares — also improved in the July-to-September period, when sales totaled $499.9 million in Clark County. That was up 3.5 percent over the same three months a year ago, but still a small increase when compared with more robust retail sales of past years.
Third-quarter store-only sales likely included money spent on picnic supplies, entertainment and back-to-school clothing.
“It’s a modest increase,” said Pam Lindloff, a retail expert and associate vice president with NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson. “Consumer confidence is still shaky, despite the job numbers.”
Clark County’s unemployment rate inched downward at an agonizingly slow rate through 2011, as local employers added a net 1,200 jobs over the past 12 months, according to the state Employment Security Department.
But the national employment outlook showed more signs of improvement, according to the Associated Press, which reported Friday that the nation’s unemployment rate dropped for the fourth straight month in December. That brought the nation’s unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, down from a peak of 10.1 percent in October 2009.
Lindloff characterized the mood of local retailers as “cautiously optimistic.” She said merchants want to believe reports that foresee an increase in consumer confidence and employment numbers.
“There’s really been no clarity on whether those numbers reflect more people going back to work or fewer people filing unemployment claims,” Lindloff said.
Nevertheless, she said, many local retailers saw year-over-year sales increases in the third quarter that continued into the last three months of the year.
“In general, they feel 2011 was better than 2010,” Lindloff said. “They’re finally seeing an increase.”
Lindloff said sales grew in late 2011 at high-end retailers, such as Nordstrom and Macy’s, while discounters like Walmart saw an end-of-year drop in sales.
According to the state report, e-commerce and mail-order sales increased 35 percent, to $11 million, in Clark County during the third quarter.
“That’s indicative of the fact that more folks are shopping online,” Lindloff said. “It saves them fuel and time.”
In the meantime, store-only sales remained relatively flat in the home furnishings business in the third quarter, a reflection of the county’s still-sluggish housing market, according to Tom Craig, owner of Sparks Home Furnishings furniture store on the corner of Evergreen and Broadway in downtown Vancouver.
“Our business is tied in with new housing and people moving,” he said. “It was pretty flat in the third quarter.”
But the state’s fourth-quarter report could register an increase in the category of sporting goods, toys, books and music in Clark County, according to Mary Sisson, co-owner of Vancouver toy store Kazoodles.
“I can tell you the fourth quarter was the best we ever had,” she said, adding that sales increased by 11 percent in December at her east Vancouver store.
It takes the state about three months to collect and add up quarterly sales figures. Statewide total taxable retail sales increased 3.2 percent to $27.3 billion during the third quarter compared with the same period last year.