From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Posts Tagged ‘retail real estate

Real Estate Marketing Focus

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I’ve observed over the years that real estate investors, developers, and such try to aim for the “middle”.  It’s a defensive strategy.  Lots of community shopping centers got built before the recession hit, not because they were hot or trendy or even hugely profitable, but because they were generally considered to be “safe”.  The same was true with single family subdivisions, all of which looked pretty much alike by 2006.  Lots of “average” apartments were built, Class B to B+ office buildings (some of which marketed themselves at Class A, but could get away with that only because of demand), and plain, vanilla warehouses were added to the real estate stock.

Now that we’re (hopefully!) coming out of a recession, it may be a good time to dust off some basic truths about business in general as it applies to real estate.  Sure, there’s a very strong temptation to rush to the middle again, and in the case of apartments (for which there is a demonstrably strong demand right now), that may not be a bad idea.  Nonetheless, I recall one of the great pieces of advice from Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: “average” firms achieve mediocre results.  The same is frequently true in real estate.

Case in point — there was a great article on page B1 of the Wall Street Journal yesterday titled “The Malaise Afflicting America’s Malls”. by WSJ’s Kris Hudson.  (There’s a link to the on-line version of the article on the WSJ Blog.)  Using Denver, Colorado, as an example, they note how the “high end” mall (Cherry Creek Shopping Center), with such tenants as Tiffany and Neiman Marcus is enjoying sales of $760/SF.  At the other end of the spectrum, Belmar and the Town Center at Aurora are suffering with $300/SF sales from lower-end tenants.  Other malls in Denver are shut-down or being demolished and redeveloped.  For SOME consumers and SOME kinds of products, in-person shopping is still the normal.  It’s hard to imagine buying a truck load of lumber from Home Depot on-line (and Home Depot has done very well the past few years), although even they have a well-functioning web presence for a variety of non-urgent, easily shipped items.

I noted recently that some private book sellers are actually doing well in this market, and have partnered with Amazon to have a global presence.  (We buy a LOT of books at Casa d’Kilpatrick, and nearly all of them come from private booksellers VIA Amazon’s web site.)  On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine buying couture fashion over the web.  Intriguingly, Blue Nile, the internet-based jeweler, notes that their web-sales sales last year (leading up to Christmas) were great at the both ends of the spectrum, but lousy in the middle.   Stores like Dollar General, who aim for a segment of the market below Wal Mart, have done quite well in this recession (the stock has nearly doubled in price in the past two years).  Ironically, Wal Mart, which is increasingly being viewed as a middle-market generalist retailer, hasn’t fared as well.  Target, which seems to aim for the middle of the middle of the middle, has seen it’s stock price flat as a pancake for the past two years, and Sears, the butt of so many Tim Allen jokes, is trading at about half of where it was two years ago.  These lessons are being lost on some retail developers, but being heeded by others.  Guess who will come out on top?

So, who needs offices, warehouses, and other commercial real estate?  Businesses at the top, middle, or bottom?  If we follow the adages of Peters and Waterman, we’ll expect the best growth — and hence the most sustained rents — at the top and bottom of the spectrum.  (Indeed, even in apartments, one might build a great case that the best demand today is at the low end and high end).  However, we’re willing to bet that developers will aim for the middle, as always.

Retail and the Internet

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First, if you can only read ONE magazine every week, it must be The Economist.  If I were to go into hibernation for a year (or 20, for that matter), a cover-to-cover read of the current issue would bring me up-to-date on pretty much every topic of major importance, both in the U.S. and globally.  And no, I don’t get a kick-back from them on subscriptions.

The current issue has not one but TWO thoughtful pieces on the impact of the internet on retailing.  From a real estate perspective, this is of vital importance for three reasons.  First, internet retailers actually DO occupy space, but it’s a very different kind of space than most-bricks-and-mortar retailers occupy.  (For more on my perspective on this, read my interview about Amazon in Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce this past week.)  Second (as the Economist articles point out), many retailers “get it” but many don’t (more on this in a minute).  As a result, some retailers thrive (Apple and Disney are two cited examples, but I’d also note Seattle’s Nordstrom as a firm that grasps how to thrive in both markets).

The third reason is a bit more subtle.  The Economist quotes Roy Amara, the American futurologist, who says, “We tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run.”  As a small-e economist, I would note that in the long run, internet retailing has the very real impact of making American business more productive, in terms of “unit of output” per “unit of cost” (or “unit of labor”), which is a very good thing indeed.  Why?  Simply put, the developed economies (U.S., Europe, and Japan, for starters) are fighting a demographic battle.  Japan and Europe are more-or-less losing.  Their populations are becoming increasingly older, and their population growth is basically flat.  The U.S. is barely winning the demographic battle, ironically thanks in no small part to immigration (both legal and otherwise).  Why is this important?  Simply put, increases in GDP are necessary in order to create jobs and to support the increasing costs of an increasingly aging population.  There are only two real ways to accomplish this (note the word “real”, as in without inflation):  either grow the working-age segment of the population (we’ve already thrown in the towel on that one) or make equal strides in productivity.  Hence, the information age allows fewer workers to generate greater productivity in order to support a population in which increasingly large segments are not part of the productive landscape.

As noted, some bricks-and-mortar retailers “get it”.  For many segments of the shopping landscape, an on-line substitute just won’t do.  Apple figured this out with the Apple Stores, which are slick looking, very efficient, and a far better solution when need instant answers or want to buy something “Apple”.  By the way, I have an Iphone which I acquired from an ATT store.  I have to go back into that store occasionally for upgrades or accessories — it’s near my house and thus very convenient.  I can’t help but notice that they’ve re-done the store in much more of an Apple-esque image.  Accident?  I don’t think so, plus the shopping experience is much more efficient and enjoyable now.

Borders didn’t make it, but Barnes and Noble seems to be hanging on, in no small part because of the adaptation to the internet.  Interestingly enough, many “mom-and-pop” booksellers were predicted to go out of business due to Amazon, yet many of them have thrived by partnering with Amazon and doing what entrepreneurs do best (catering to “niche” needs).  Last time I bought a “new” book it was a Christmas present, and I got it at a deep discount at Costco.  The last 10 books to come into the Kilpatrick house, though, came from small-town retailers who had partnered with Amazon, and to whom we paid full-retail.

Interesting side note — ONE of these retailers was Seattle’s Goodwill store, who have cataloged their bookshelves and partnered with Amazon to sell used books.  (My congratulations to my good friend, Ken Colling, the CEO of Seattle Goodwill, and no, I didn’t get a penny’s worth of discount.)  Also, by the way, it was cheaper for me to go on-line to Seattle Goodwill, buy the book, and have them mail it to us, than for us to drive to downtown Seattle and buy the book the old fashion way.  Is Goodwill going out of business because of Amazon?  Far from it — this is a windfall for them.

As The Economist notes, and I concur, retailers are struggling to figure out this new paradigm.  They are also coping with an explosive growth in shopping space — between 1999 and 2009, shopping space in the U.S. ballooned from 18 square feet per person to 23 square feet.

A final note:  The Economist deals primarily with the experience in the U.S..  Clearly in Europe and Japan, this is also a struggle and perhaps an even worse one.  However, this information-age paradigm shift is occurring right as many developing nations (China in particular) are seeing an emerging middle class, and the retail-therapy that permeates middle-classes everywhere.  Retail real estate developers who look at the Chinese economic trends and think that China may need as many square feet of shopping experience as Americans have come to enjoy over our cultural history may need to think again.  The simultaneity of the emergence of the information age with the emergence of a Chinese middle class (not to mention the cultural history, which in China may favor small, entrepreneur-driven businesses) may portend a very different retail future.

Retail — on the mend?

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The Marcus and Millichap 2012 Annual Retail Report just hit my desk.  It’s a great compendium — one of the best retail forecasts in the industry — and not only looks at the national overview but also breaks down the forecast by 44 major markets.

A few key points:

  • What they call “sub-trend” employment growth will prevail until GDP growth surpasses 2.1% (we would add:  “…sustainably passes….”)  Increased business confidence will continue to transition temporary jobs to permanent ones.
  • Most retail indicators performed surprisingly well in 2011, defying a mid-year plunge, a slide in consumer confidence, and a modest contraction in per-capita disposable income.
  • The Eurozone financial crisis could undermine the U.S. recovery, but fixed investment will remain a pillar of growth, with capital flowing to equipment and non-residential real estate.
  • All 44 markets tracked by M&M are forecasted to post job growth, vacancy declines, and effective rent growth in 2012.
  • A rise in net absorption to 77 million square feet in 2012 will dwarf the projected 32 million SF in new supply, with overall vacancy rates tightening to 9.2%.
  • However, some major retailers, most notably Sears and Macy’s, will continue to downsize or close stores that fail to meet operational hurdles.
  • CMBS retail loans totalling $1.5 Billion will mature in 2012, but many may fail to refinance — about 81% have LTV’s exceeding acceptable levels.
  • The limited number of really premier properties in the “right” markets will hit what M&M calls “high-high” price levels, moving some investors into secondary markets as risk tolerance expands and capital conditions become more fluid.

For your own copy of this research report, or to get on M&M’s mailing list, click here.

Written by johnkilpatrick

February 17, 2012 at 9:57 am

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