Please excuse retail and shopping center executives if they seem especially cheerful or even positively giddy. It’s been a long time since the industries experienced such a uniformly strong start to a holiday season as the recent Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Retail gains in the 3 to 4 percent range are generally expected for holiday 2017, which would make this the best season since 2014.
Still, despite the early good news, questions remain about the long-term viability of some retailers and B and C shopping centers. The fact that consumers shopped heavily in physical stores on Black Friday doesn’t change the reality that they have a growing preference for online, digital and mobile commerce. Nor does it address the Millennial conundrum — a generation that has so far confounded mall owners.
So besides deal-making, the International Council of Shopping Center’s New York Deal-Making conference Wednesday and Thursday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center will offer the industry opportunities for some much-needed self-reflection.
“There’s a reset in retail, in general,” said David Gorelick, head of retail for the Americas at Cushman & Wakefield. “Retail changes in seven- and 10-year cycles. We’re in that moment. If you look at the way traditional retail was positioned, it never took distribution into consideration. New Commerce [a term coined and trademarked by Cushman & Wakefield, Gorelick said] is a way of doing business along the trajectory of what retail will be. It’s streamlining logistics. Sure, there a store closures, but there are also a lot of store openings as well. There are new concepts and new market segments. There’s an element of the unknown, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Tom McGee, president and chief executive officer of the International Council of Shopping Centers, sounded bullish — no surprise there — about the industry’s holiday prospects, as 10,000 attendees descend on the organization’s convention at the Javits, where the confab is occupying more square footage than ever, including on the second floor.
“Our forecast is 3.8 percent growth over the holiday season,” McGee said. “All indications are that that number will come to fruition. Crowds over the [Black Friday] weekend were strong. We estimate that 150 million people went shopping over the Thanksgiving holiday.”
The fact that consumers shopped heavily during Black Friday and Cyber Monday won’t preclude them from continuing to spend throughout the holiday period, McGee said, noting that ICSC’s survey results show the buying continuing. “The reality is that 44 percent of consumers complete their shopping in the last week before Christmas,” he said. “The momentum of the first weekend will continue. There’s a strong economy, good job market and rising consumer sentiment. All those factors support a strong holiday season.”
McGee isn’t worried about e-commerce eclipsing brick-and-mortar any time soon. “Despite the growth in online over Cyber Monday, store traffic was very strong,” he said. “News stories about the size of Cyber Monday sales ignore the fact that absolute holiday spending will be $678 billion, of which online will contribute $100 billion to $105 billion. We expect very strong growth in store sales, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Retail with a strong omni offering will do best.”
Naveen Jaggi, president of retail brokerage and capital markets at JLL, said where consumers shopped isn’t the point — what’s important is that they opened their wallets. “Consumer spending is the narrative. There was pent-up demand from consumers,” said Jaggi, noting that JLL is predicting a 6 sales percent increase for the Christmas season. “They spent money like we haven’t seen in quite a while. Retail is about consumer confidence and customer spending, and it’s the healthiest it’s been in 10 years. We’re announcing real wage growth and there’s a direct tie-in to spending.”
William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers Inc., said, “We could go on and on about entertainment, experiences and dining as motivators, which they are, but what is less discussed these days but remains critically important is for customers to have immediate access to inventory. Retailers have been focusing on fine-tuning inventory practices to ensure they aren’t taking too much off the floor to appease online customers. Retailers have made good strides in managing inventory so far this holiday season — much better than last year — and I hope this continues.”
Among the key buzzwords of the moment, “authentic” and “experience” rank high. Taubman invoked both when discussing the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, which is in the throes of a $500 million renovation scheduled to bow in time for the 2018 holiday season.
“Our conversations with influencers, and our research, has us taking an entirely different approach to the market,” Taubman said. “Beverly Center has been reimagined to be progressive, authentic and welcoming to everyone that makes L.A. tick. You’ll see our aspirations in everything from our architecture, where we knocked out walls to bring in dramatic, full-window views of the city, to our continuous skylight that bathes the center in sunshine, to our new street-level restaurants that open the center’s exterior to the community and welcome pedestrians.
“We’ll be defined by our enlightened experiences that tap into the creativity of our tenants and partners, and will include a series of intimate, rotating food, wellness and cultural experiences,” he said. “You will also see our inclusiveness in the further elevated retail lineup that will offer the market’s broadest assortment of everything from fast fashion to an enhanced luxury offering.”
The mall’s luxury portfolio — which includes Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Saint Laurent and Salvatore Ferragamo — is “part of what will continue to separate us from Century City and The Grove,” Taubman said. “We have the strongest men’s collection as our customer base is equally divided by gender.”
But as malls search for their tenants of the future, pop-ups featuring local retailers with unique offerings are popular as operators look to attract Millennials, who prize experiences and authenticity over products. “Malls are looking for unique products and experiences and local artisans, things that are hard to do in a permanent store,” McGee said. “It’s a way to differentiate yourself. Millennials and Generation Z, in particular, place a high premium on relationships and authenticity. To attract Millennials, centers are looking for local concepts.”
Abercrombie & Fitch’s new store prototype, which opened at Polaris mall in Columbus, Ohio, could be considered a move toward authenticity, with its walls covered in dark grainy wood, metal sculpture of an A&F logo from a century ago, and shop-in-shop featuring an apothecary, features that may subconsciously tug at consumers’ penchant for nostalgia.
“Two dominant trends in retail are going global and going local,” said Paco Underhill, ceo and founder of Envirosell, who considers himself a retail anthropologist. “If you go to the Christmas fairs in Union Square or Grand Central Terminal, you see things you might not normally see. I’ve gotten more accolades for things I’ve bought there, which were sold by purveyors who know their products intimately.”
As the Millennials become more enthusiastic about consumption — or not — the aging Baby Boomer cohort is causing some consternation. “Shopping centers are being revitalized to cater to new demographics and the new Millennial class,” McGee said. “The aging Baby Boomer generation is transitioning out of their prime consumption years, while at the younger end of the demographic spectrum, Millennials are just beginning to transition to their prime consumption years. They spend a lot of disposable income on services and going out to eat.”
McGee said the makeup of the mall “is evolving. The department store space and apparel space is the part that’s evolving the most significantly. You’ll see some of that space, as it comes available, repurposed for food and beverage and specialty and local retailers. Millennials enjoy customized experiences, so a concept must not only be focused, it has to offer something more than just a homogenous experience.”
Credit Suisse projected as many as 8,600 store closures in 2017, or about 147 million square feet of retail space. Asked how shopping centers will absorb such a glut, McGee said, “There’s a huge supply of new tenants we’re starting to see emerge as they start to build profitable business models. Online retailers moving into stores include Everlane, which makes sustainable clothing, and Untuckt, which now has a significant number of stores.”
But not everybody sees the glass as full as McGee.
“We’re sitting in a place now where our retail landscape is deeply, deeply troubled,” Underhill said. “We have lots and lots of vacancies. The corner of Bleecker Street and Perry Street, for example. I’ve been witness to the ascension and crash of retail.” Underhill also called out Uniqlo, saying the retailer “has had trouble finding traction. Beyond a couple of the flagship stores, I have serious doubts whether Uniqlo is going to exist in our market two years from now. It’s one of the basic challenges of global retail. Uniqlo is executing a Japanese strategy in the U.S.”
“We’re going to have a strong Christmas — by far the strongest since the recession — but it’s not going to change some of the overriding trends that have been challenging,” said Garrick Brown, vice president, retail research, Americas at Cushman & Wakefield. “It will buy some time for retailers in trouble. It’s not going to change the rapid acceleration of new commerce. Cyber Monday was record-breaking. That was expected.”
“Realistically, only Wal-Mart is in a position to compete head to head with Amazon because it has the deep pockets and an acquisition model,” Brown said, adding that Wal-Mart grew e-commerce by 50 percent in the recent first quarter, aided by Jet.com, which the Bentonville, Ark.-based behemoth acquired in August 2016 for $3.3 billion.
“How do you compete with Amazon?” Brown asked rhetorically. “Increasingly, Wal-Mart’s answer is asymmetrical warfare. No one is going to be able to put the time and money into infrastructure, but you can beef up your platform.”
How to compete with Amazon, indeed, especially when the mammoth digital force is on the hunt for properties. “Wal-Mart and Amazon are looking to buy up a lot of concepts,” said Brown, who predicted that 2018 will be “the year of mergers and acquisitions since many retailers are undervalued. Nordstrom is making a profit, but its stock has been hammered. Macy’s is going to be bought. There’s a lot of money looking. The first quarter of the year is when retailers shut down their underperforming stores. News of that will hammer stock prices and that’s when the acquisitions spree will kick in. You’ll also see some merger activity.”
More store closings are on tap, according to Brown, and possibly, bankruptcy filings as well. “The closures are going to ramp up next year. It will be the peak of this trend. If you’re a trophy mall, a class A or above, you’ll do fine,” Brown said. “The bankruptcies will hit you, but you can backfill the space. If you get a department store pad back, you’re jumping for joy. B and C malls won’t have that option available. When they lose a department store, there’s no easy fix.”
While Brown sees store closures peaking in 2018, Jaggi disagrees. “I’m convinced 2017 was the peak in terms of store closures,” he said. “Most retailers in 2015 closed stores because of weaker-than-expected sales during the holiday season. We’re seeing an uptick in sales. The retailers that are struggling would have already bailed.”
There may be some upside in all the churning, Gorelick said. “Malls are designated B and C centers for a reason. Maybe they can morph into something that works a little better for suburban customers. They can utilize some [empty] anchor boxes as distribution and fulfillment centers or for health and wellness services.”
While some centers are loath to lose an anchor for fear of not finding a replacement, others evolve despite an outdated anchor tenant whose long-term lease can seem like it’s weighing down the property. For example, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1967 opened and signed a 100-year lease with Sears. As the center moved in a decidedly more upscale direction, Sears wouldn’t budge.
“South Coast Plaza was giving the space away at the time it opened,” Brown said. “Sears was paying something like $1.50 a square foot, when everything else in the mall is $100 per square foot. C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, [owner of South Coast Plaza] wanted Sears out. They were creating a luxury mall.”
Segerstrom in July finally acquired Sears’ store and the land it sits on for $187 million. Sears continues to operate, albeit as a tenant.
Will 2018 be the year that the long-suffering Sears and Kmart chains are finally laid to rest? “They’ll benefit from the strong holiday season,” McGee said. “So much attention is placed on a small number of [unhealthy] retailers.”
“There’s a very real probability, if not likelihood, that Sears goes down next year,” Brown said, noting that about 600 Sears units and 700 Kmart locations would close. “J.C. Penney has said it will shutter 100 to 200 stores. It’s conceivable that 1,000 department stores will close next year. A lot of inline tenants have co-tenancy clauses,” Brown said, explaining that the agreements could allow them to break their leases with little or no penalty.
If Sears finally succumbs, it will be because parent Sears Holdings Corp., operated by ceo Edward Lambert, hasn’t invested in the stores, infrastructure, supply chain and more. Wal-Mart couldn’t be accused of being tight with its money. With its Jet.com acquisition, Wal-Mart hired Jet founder Marc Lore as ceo of U.S. e-commerce. He’s introduced innovations such as paying sales associates to deliver packages to online customers on their way home from work; offering consumers a discount for picking up their online orders in a store, and acquiring online native brands like Bonobos and e-tailers such as Moosejaw to go onto Jet.com.
Jaggi said Wal-Mart’s recently announced partnership with Lord & Taylor, where the department store will sell products on the discount giant’s web site, shows that “Wal-Mart is being far more aggressive and competitive. It has the broadest, biggest presence in the world, and a massive brick-and-mortar network in the U.S. Wal-Mart stores, walmart.com and Jet.com, are giving a [singular] message to consumers. Wal-Mart is meeting the consumer in all the ways the customer can engage. They have the power and size. Wal-Mart’s playing offense now.
“Click and collect is still viewed as a grocery function, but I think we’ll see more retailers trying it, besides Wal-Mart. It comes down to this: Consumers want good service, they want what they want now and they don’t want to pay to get it.
“The U.S. economy has been incredibly resilient,” Jaggi said, while noting that rents in Manhattan continue to be challenged. “Landlords have come to realize that New York has massive street vacancies. If you want to have an active storefront you have more than one option, permanent leases or temporary leases.”
Rick Friedland, a principal of Friedland Properties, which manages and leases more than 100 commercial properties in its portfolio and is the largest landlord along the Gold Coast of Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, said the large number of short-term deals being transacted is an indication of “how much of a seismic shift there’s been in the retail market. It’s where the rents are versus the Amazon effect. I think there will always be some demand for pop-up stores. The conditions right now are particularly favorable.
“Sometimes pop-up shops tend not to pay as much as longer-term leases or offer the same security,” Friedland added. “They fill a void for a prescribed period of time. They offer a brand the ability to test the market. Sometimes it works out well. There have been instances where brands have done short-term deals and then had the expectation that the store was going to be theirs long-term. There’s some risk associated on their end, too.”
A Real Estate Board of New York fall survey saw rents decline in 13 out of 17 high-profile retail corridors from the same period last year. It’s a stark reminder that Manhattan’s once high-flying retail markets are having trouble lifting their wings.
“It’s an interesting time in retail now. If you talk to landlords and brokers, and even tenants, there’s some uncertainty. But there’s optimism that whatever cycle we’re in right now will shift back upward,” Friedland said. “Are rents off their highs? Yes. In a lot of shopping corridors, rents are off. There’s a fair amount [of vacancies] on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.”
Friedland said Madison Avenue’s shoppers are largely residents of the area. “You’re still looking at very localized appeal to consumers. There’s a lot of overlap of luxury between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. If you walk down those thoroughfares, you’ll see different customers,” he said. “People who live on the Upper East Side would rather go to the Apple store on Madison and 74th Street. The same applies to the brands that have a presence on both streets. The Upper West Side also has a very heavy residential, neighborhood-oriented consumer.”
Cushman & Wakefield’s Brown said retailers, landlords and REITS may all experience more pain before they get any relief. “We were so seriously overbuilt,” Brown said. “This is a challenging time, but it will be a much more compelling retail marketplace, after everything shakes out.”