The best malls are buzzing — with dealmakers.
Brookfield Property Partners said Monday that it offered to buy out the 66 percent of mall operator GGP Inc. that it does not already own.
GGP is weighing the $14.8 billion proposal, which would create a giant with nearly $100 billion in global real estate.
Mark that as the latest sign of life in the mall deal market.
Last week activist investor Dan Loeb’s Third Point disclosed that it had bought 1.7 million shares of Macerich Co., or about 1.2 percent of the shopping center company.
Both GGP and Macerich focus on the upper tier — the A malls — which has been faring much better than malls further down the food chain.
But until now, the market has retreated from retail real estate in general as mall traffic waned, retailers struggled to find their footing in an online world and many chains succumbed to bankruptcy.
“You’re absolutely seeing the haves and the have nots and the market has trouble distinguishing the two,” said Shyam Gidumal, Northeast consumer products and retail market segment leader at consultancy EY. “The public markets are going to have to become more sophisticated about distinguishing these companies from each other.”
While a decade ago the market talked about A, B, C and D malls, with the D malls being the true trouble spots, now it’s only the A malls that seem to be safe.
“If you’re in the enclosed B mall world, your issue is, can you generate enough traffic in those malls to justify keeping the heat on,” Gidumal said.
Enclosed malls also have to keep the lights on and maintain the common spaces, making them much more expensive to operate than strip centers and harder to maintain without the expected sales.
That’s why the investment interest is in the A centers.
“For retailers who have distinct product and draw traffic, this is a great thing because you’re going to have landlords who want retailers who…draw traffic,” Gidumal said. “For the old-style retailer, whose approach was, ‘the anchors draw traffic and we monetize that traffic,’ they’re going to find it harder and harder to find high-quality space that mall owners will want to give them.”
While department stores have been struggling mightily and specialty players find themselves needing to change — and quick — the consumer has been relatively strong.
“The reality of retail is good,” said Michael Brown, a partner in A.T. Kearney’s retail practice. “Consumers are spending, wages are increasing. But what we also know is what consumers are spending on is different — it’s much more experienced-based as opposed to product based. It’s much more about spending online, but using the malls to shop for product.”
That has the best malls catering to higher-spending consumers and able to bring in the growing chains and more entertainment.
“There are really great properties out there,” Brown said. “And over time there has been transition and there are properties that aren’t as valuable as they used to be.”
Even if the investing class is largely immune to nuance, there have been plenty of signs that bricks-and-mortar retail is changing and not going away — including from the e-commerce giant Amazon.
“When Amazon bought Whole Foods, you could say that was one of the best things that could happen to [real estate investment trusts],” said Bill Lewis, a director in AlixPartners’ retail practice. “It validated that there would continue to be a physical need. The death of physical retail, I think, has been exaggerated.”
Lewis noted that 90 percent of sales still happen in stores and that GGP still sees sales of $835 a square foot in its top 10 centers, while Macerich’s overall sales come to $626 a square foot — well above the average of closer to $500.
“These malls are replacing stores that are not successful with brands like Blue Nile, Warby Parker, Peloton,” Lewis said. “Those started as pure digital businesses and there are more that are coming, like Honest Co., Bonobos and Untuckit.”