First quarter figures show Whatcom County's retail sales rising

With retail trends in 2010 pointing to an uncertain future, opening an apparel store in a small town was a gamble.

Yet Barb Scoggins did so with Find Your Fashion, her clothing store located in the Ferndale Station retail center.

As the shop reaches its two-year anniversary in August, Scoggins said small-town roots and a local customer base have been major factors in its success.

“In this down economy and being in a smaller town, it’s hard to get momentum,” she said. “But I wanted my flagship store to be in Ferndale. I wanted to provide local jobs and convenience for our town.”

To celebrate the two-year mark, Find Your Fashion hosts a series of events from Aug. 13-19, including visits from local apparel artists, sales and prize drawings.

Alissa Taylor, a lead sales associate, said the store tries to compete with larger retailers in the region by emphasizing customer service– zeroing in on the adage of “quality over quantity.”

“We just have a small-town feel,” Taylor said. “A lot of our regular customers, we know their names, we know their families.”

Despite the positive response the store’s seen from its regulars, Taylor said she was still surprised by the amount of Ferndale residents she meets who have never heard of Find Your Fashion. That lack of hometown recognition has led to a push for more marketing and advertising.

Scoggins also plans to open a second location in Bellingham by the end of the year.

Positive signs for local shopping

Whatcom County retailers showed sound sales numbers in the first quarter of 2012, according to figures released in July by the Washington State Department of Revenue.

The county’s taxable retail sales increased 8.9 percent since the same period last year, an increase higher than the statewide uptick of 4.7 percent.

Though Bellingham, with a larger population base and greater number of retailers, accounted for nearly two-thirds of the county’s 2012 first quarter sales total of $716.1 million, the city’s growth rate lagged behind other Whatcom communities. Sales in the border city of Sumas, which recorded the highest increase, shot up more than 28 percent since the first quarter of 2011 – and Sumas’ retail trade sales, which only count transactions made inside stores, rose nearly 40 percent.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he doesn’t see the strong local retail sales fizzling anytime soon. Growth in the sector can be largely attributed to the increase in Canadian consumer spending, he said.

Cross-border traffic has been lucrative for American retailers. Adding to the boon, the Canadian government recently quadrupled the dollar amount of duty-free purchases its citizens can bring back from the U.S.

“All of the different economic indicators that generally drive Canadians south are all in our favor right now,” Oplinger said.

But small retailers face challenges competing against larger chain stores, which are more likely to capture the increase in Canadian consumer spending, he said. Unfortunately for small shops, Canadians seem to favor major players – particularly the big-box stores in Bellingham such as Target, Wal-Mart and Costco.

Yet Oplinger believes local stores still have qualities larger retailers can’t touch, including unique characteristics and loyal, hometown customer bases.

Defining a local store

Highlighting the singular elements of her business has proven to be one of Barb Scoggins’ challenges. Part of the problem, she said, is a misconception over what class of retail store Find Your Fashion falls into.

Scoggins said a lot of people believe the store is either a consignment shop or a high-end boutique. But it’s neither.

Much like retail chains found in major shopping malls, Find Your Fashion sells men’s, women’s and children’s apparel at competitive market prices, including items from popular lines such as Quiksilver and Yummie Tummie, a women’s shapewear line created by Heather Thompson from the Bravo network’s reality TV show “The Real Housewives of New York.”

“To this day, I have people who live and work in Ferndale, and they walk in and go, “Oh my gosh, this is not what I expected,” Scoggins said.

Finding quality workers is also difficult, employers say.

Find Your Fashion has six employees working part-time with various hours and schedules. Scoggins starts new employees at minimum wage, but provides incentives for strong workers. She pays more experienced ones as much as $15 an hour.

Scoggins said she knows there are good workers out there looking for jobs, but not everyone dropping off resumes is hireable. During one recent hiring round for a new sales associate, Scoggins said she had to go through a search process three times to find someone who fit the job.

It’s disappointing, since one of her goals with Find Your Fashion is to help her community, she said. With a desire to stay close to home and foster cooperation among other local small-business owners, Scoggins said she started in Ferndale in part to be at the forefront of the city’s future business development.

“I want to be part of the solution in Ferndale and not part of the problem,” she said.

Expanding to Bellingham is part of that strategy. With a second store – whose location has not yet been determined – Scoggins said she want to “cross-pollinate,” and show Bellingham shoppers that there are strong local businesses in other parts of Whatcom County.

Scoggins said if shoppers in the region begin seeing Ferndale as a retail destination, she doesn’t think they will leave disappointed.

“Come support small local businesses in Ferndale,” Scoggins said. “Shop local and help support the small shops here.”


Evan Marczynski Photos/Courtesy photo from Barb Scoggins

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