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Levin Retail Sentiment Survey Reflects Positive Outlook on 2016

Lower Gas Prices, Job Growth, and the Housing Market Will Bolster Sales this Year

Store managers in our 95-property, 13 million-square-foot portfolio told us they feel good about the year ahead during our annual January Retail Sentiment Survey. This is particularly good news considering that the poll was conducted at the outset of the current stock market volatility.

In fact, an impressive 68.1 percent of the survey respondents said they are optimistic about 2016. “We really are at a transitional time for retail, with factors like positive job growth, low gas pricing and the housing market uptick working in the industry’s favor,” noted Levin President Matthew K. Harding.

Mixed with the good news was some uncertainty about the specifics of 2016’s performance, with 20.5 percent of participants undecided about what exactly to expect. “The unseasonably warm fall and early winter, and what has become a longer –and therefore more diluted – holiday shopping season impacted sales for some retailers,” Harding said. “As such, it makes sense that our tenants are expressing some remaining uncertainty.”

Our survey mirrors leading industry sources, who are also predicting a respectable 2016 performance. Kiplinger anticipates retail will grow approximately 4 percent. Trading Economics expects 3.6 percent growth.

2015 Sales Showed Modest Upward Momentum Nationally

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in January that 2015 retail sales were up only 2.1 from 2014 (for context, 2014 sales were up 3.9 percent over 2013). And the National Retail Federation reported moderate 2015 holiday season sales growth of 3.0 percent, down from its forecasted growth of 3.7 percent. Our survey, as well, showed modest momentum in both year-over-year and holiday sales.

Nearly 53.0 percent of survey respondents reported 2015 sales at the same level or higher than 2014. This figure is up from 51.7 percent and 49.4 percent reporting same/higher sales in our January 2015 and 2014 polls, respectively.

The majority of our respondents also reported a generally positive 2015 holiday shopping season, with 58.0 percent reporting sales at the same level or higher than 2014. And 57.0 percent reported that shopper traffic at the same or higher level than in the 2014 holiday season. While these figures are slightly lower than last year’s poll (63.6 percent reported same/higher sales; 60.0 percent reported same/higher traffic), they still outpace the prior year (50.6 percent reported same/higher sales; 48.2 reported same/higher traffic).

A Retail Real Estate Trend: Online and Bricks-and-Mortar Converging

Our survey and other industry reports, like RetailNext’s Retail Performance Pulse, reflected the strength of bricks-and-mortar retail during the holidays. In fact, the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Holiday Consumer Purchasing Trends Study revealed that 91 percent of consumers shopped in physical stores during the 2015 season. ICSC also reported that 32 percent of shoppers made purchases online and picked them up in physical stores; 76 percent bought additional items in the same or an adjacent store.

“We are witnessing a growing synergy between in-store and online purchasing, and its benefits for bricks-and-mortar,” Harding pointed out. “Increasing demand for this type of technology-driven, omni-channel retailing will play a big role in 2016. Bricks-and-mortar and online are converging. And it appears our tenants are gearing up accordingly.”

Looking Forward: More Than a Retail Trend, Tech is Driving Results

More than half (50.9 percent) of our survey respondents plan to add or enhance their tech-based marketing efforts in 2016 with mobile apps, social media, email and text messaging.

Approximately half indicated their company has changed its business model in response to the growth of e-commerce. The most popular adaptations include enhanced in-store services and incentives, added in-store pickup and returns option for online purchases, and generally increased collaboration between online and bricks-and-mortar. Among the retailers that have revised their business models, 40.6 percent reported a positive impact on sales.

Crystal Ball Time: What will 2016 Hold for Retail? New Stores and Right-Sizing

What’s ahead? “It remains to be seen whether the recent stock market shake-up will have a long-term impact,” Harding concluded. “We all hope to see a fairly rapid correction. Should that take place, the retail industry is likely to maintain growth momentum well into 2016.”

In some cases, this means new stores – good news for retail real estate companies like ours. More than one quarter (28.4 percent) of the store managers in our survey indicated their company planned additional locations this year. “We anticipate that smaller footprints will be the norm as retailers continue to right-size and make shifts to incorporate e-commerce into their operations,” Harding noted.

We also asked retailers if they observed shifts in the hiring climate as the unemployment rate continues falling. Their feedback indicates about 44.0 percent are noticing changes, most prominently in the areas of applications by fewer qualified job candidates and increased demand for higher starting salaries.

“U.S. unemployment inched down to 5.0 percent last month, and if this trend continues it will likely have a growing impact on retail hiring,” Harding pointed out. “This is an area we will be focusing on more closely in upcoming surveys.”

Levin’s next Retail Sentiment Survey will be conducted in June, reporting mid-year progress and exploring technology issues.