Retail sales jump 7 percent in Clark County

Construction projects, vehicle sales drive increase

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Vehicle sales and the construction of buildings and highway projects contributed to a 7 percent jump in taxable retail sales in Clark County in the three months ending in March.

But retail sales at stores that sell furniture, general merchandise, clothing, shoes and jewelry held fairly steady, according to a state report issued Thursday.

The Washington State Department of Revenue reported that total taxable retail sales reached $994 million in the first quarter of 2012 and store-only retail sales totaled $458.4 million during that same period in Clark County.

New and used motor vehicle and parts sales turned in one of the highest year-over-year increases. The category reached $91.3 million in the first quarter, up from $77.3 million during the same three months last year.

Car and truck sales have consistently improved during the past year, a function of pent-up demand among consumers, said Eric Fuller, president of Eric Fuller & Associates Inc. commercial real estate firm in Vancouver and past president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

"If you postpone something for five years, you eventually have to replace it," he said, adding he's heard auto financing is more readily available than other types of loans.

"There's plenty for those with good credit," said Fuller, who has seen retail vacancies shrink in recent months.

Retail sales for heavy construction of highways increased by 8.1 percent in the three months ending in March, compared with the same period last year. Major first-quarter Clark County projects included widening projects on Interstate 205 at the Salmon Creek exit and on state Highway 14 through Camas and Washougal.

Retail sales for the construction of new buildings increased by 20 percent, rising to $66.3 million, as local contractors slowly returned to work.

"Those are modest numbers over low numbers," Fuller said.

Meanwhile, store-only retail sales were up by 6 percent in the first quarter over the same period in 2011. Fuller doesn't expect the trend will continue when the state releases county retail totals for the second quarter.

His assessment echoed recent national retail reports that the nation's anemic job market and weak income gains could continue to affect consumer confidence.

"Generally speaking, that percentage (the 7 percent increase) will not hold for the rest of the year," Fuller predicted.

Statewide, taxable retail sales increased 4.7 percent to $24.1 billion during the first quarter of 2012, the revenue department reported. Store-only retail trade statewide increased 4.2 percent to $11.1 billion during the first quarter of 2011.

Editor's note: this story has been modified to reflect a correction. Eric Fuller is past president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.