The retail apocalypse has gotten ahead of reality.
At least, that’s according to David Simon, who defended his mall business to Wall Street Thursday, slammed the media for creating a false retail “narrative,” blasted his private equity “buddies” for loading up stores with too much debt and said the closure of some department stores marks a big opportunity.
Simon, chairman and chief executive officer of Simon Property Group Inc., said on a conference call that retailers have overspent on the web and are getting hit by the costs of free shipping and free returns.
“I’m hopeful that the retailers will focus on improving their in-store experience, and that could be a lot of different ways, that could be through technology, that could be through a better look and feel,” Simon said. “This is the great narrative, that is being absolutely ignored by the national media.”
He said the narrative was “way ahead of itself, the traffic is strong, it was up throughout our portfolio where we measured it.”
Many stores have reported a sharp decrease in traffic with a generally weak retail market, laser-targeted consumers who want to get in and get out when they shop, the rise of e-commerce and the Millennial preference for experiences over stuff. More than 1,500 U.S. store doors are slated to go dark this year, with closings from Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Wet Seal, J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Guess Inc. and more.
But the upper tier, the so-called A malls that Simon focuses on, are expected to fare better than those lower down the price spectrum. For the first quarter, Simon’s funds from operations rose to $985 million from $951.8 million a year earlier, as net income slipped to $477.7 million from $481 million. As of March 31, occupancy at the company’s U.S. malls and premium outlets was flat at 95.6 percent while the minimum base rent per square foot increased 4.4 percent to $51.87.
“Our European and Asian business is actually very strong,” Simon said. “So that’s good news. “Our outlet business and Mills [a portfolio of 14 properties], business continues to prosper…The great opportunity I think in [the mall] business will continue to be reclaiming the department stores.”
He said the space could be given over to mixed uses, or Life Time gyms or “some community-orientated activity.” (In response to an analyst question, he lauded discounters such as Marshalls and said there was an opportunity to bring them into select malls).
“But instead of looking at [department store closures] as a concern, given that they pay no rent, we actually think that’s a great opportunity for our redeveloping the mall to the next level,” he said.
As the mall business was expanding, landlords typically gave sweetheart deals to department store anchors in order to draw a critical mass of other retailers and attract shoppers. But times have changed and Simon itself has become a retailer, taking a stake in the bankrupt Aéropostale, which has continued to lose money and has been a small drag on its finances. The ceo said the chain would most likely continue to post operating losses through the fourth quarter.
Plenty of other retailers are in the same boat.
“We certainly have some retailers that have not performed the way they wanted to or should have,” Simon said.
And in some cases, that has been driven by private equity buyouts that loaded up companies with debt. Simon didn’t name names, but the Limited was owned by Sun Capital Partners and was liquidated, J. Crew is struggling under the ownership of TPG and Leonard Green and Neiman Marcus reamain in flux with a heavy debt load following two private equity buyouts in a row.
“We do think private equity has been more of a detriment,” Simon said. “And, by the way, most of these guys are my buddies, OK? But when you lever up any business, whether it’s mall business, the retail business and you can’t invest in your product, you’ve got a problem. We’ve seen a lot of that.”
Other mall owners weighing in with first-quarter results Thursday also acknowledged weakness in the market, but could point to signs of life left in retail. Taubman Centers Inc. said mall tenant sales per square foot rose 1.2 percent in the quarter with average rent per square foot up 1 percent, to $60.60. Comparable occupancy was unchanged from a year earlier at 92.3 percent. Macerich Co. said mall tenant annual sales per square foot were up 2.2 percent, to $639, although its mall occupancy slipped to 94.3 percent from 95.1 percent.
Simon does not intend on making the mistake of underinvesting in his own product, and noted his company has $7 billion in capital “ready to go to work, in whatever form we can do to increase our profitability.”
In all, the conference call with analysts amounted to an effort by Simon to make his own narrative, where he returned time and again to the underlying strength of his business while acknowledging the broad weakness in the market.
“I continue to tour properties each and every week…the traffic is there,” he said. “It’s so funny, when all the malls go out of business, what are these poor people going to do instead of going to the mall? I don’t know.”
Simon made the analogy of a movie studio that has a flop.
“[It] doesn’t mean all movies are a flop, it just means the one they have was a flop,” Simon said. “It’s conceivable that in our portfolio, we have a couple of flops, but it’s immaterial.”
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