Shopping Centers: Not What They Used to Be (But That’s Not a Bad Thing)

Tale of Survival and Adaptation Unfolding for Retail Tenants and Properties

Your neighborhood shopping center isn’t what it used to be. While some say the Great Recession and the e-commerce phenomenon impacted the bricks-and-mortar landscape in a negative way, in reality, we are seeing an interesting – and encouraging – tale of endurance and progress, illustrated by the ongoing transformation of the tenant mixes of retail real estate companies.

The changes are not singular – or linear. These retail real estate trends involve new types of retail tenants and the evolution of those in our industry adapting to new settings shaped by socio-economic shifts and public policy. The bottom line: fresh opportunities are emerging in an industry where change remains one of the only sure things.

Non-Traditional is the New Normal
Not long ago, the presence of a gym at a shopping center was unusual. However, when the recession hit and many stores went dark, retail real estate companies found fitness tenants eager to step into the vacancies. At first, co-tenants were concerned about their new neighbors monopolizing parking or watering down the property’s range of products for sale. But soon, they recognized that the gym brought increased traffic their way.

Today, fitness tenants are shopping center staples, positioned as first-tier targets for retail leasing professionals. And they come in a range of price points and sizes, from Crunch Fitness and 24-hour Fitness to mid-size Retro Fitness to boutiques like Orangetheory Fitness.

The rise of the gym at retail properties was a precursor to a larger retail real estate trend. Today, many shopping centers are transitioning from places where consumers buy goods and services to places where they enjoy recreational opportunities and engage in their community.

To this end, restaurants – especially fast-casual concepts like Panera Bread and Chipotle – are comprising a larger percentage of tenant mix than in the past. This is by design, as landlords work to reintroduce shopping as a recreational pastime. Entertainment tenants are leasing spaces of all sizes, from big-box anchors like Dave & Busters to small paint-and-sip boutiques. Their success speaks to the viability of “retailtainment.”

That Which Does Not Bend May Break
At the same time, traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers – such as grocery and apparel, to name just two – remain alive and well. However they, too, look a bit different.

Following the recent A&P bankruptcy and liquidation, a growing diversification in grocery tenants has taken place in the Northeast. After several years with only a handful of expanding operators, we are seeing significant growth among chains including ShopRite, Acme, Trader Joe’s, and other specialty and ethnic grocers. Additionally, many non-grocery retailers like dollar stores and pharmacies are expanding their food inventories (although lease clauses may limit their amount of grocery-dedicated space).

In the apparel sector, a number of mid-price retailers, such as Mandee and Fashion Bug, have gone out of business over the years. However, bigger national department store players, like Nordstrom and Saks, are generating healthy sales from off-price concepts like Rack and Backstage. Discount brands such as Kohl’s, T.J.Maxx, SteinMart and Ross also remain favorites among today’s cost-conscious consumers.

Yet there’s no denying that e-commerce has made a significant impact on traditional bricks-and-mortar stores. The conversation has shifted, however, from “survival” to “opportunity,” and physical-store retailers are rethinking their approaches. They are capitalizing on opportunities to meet changing consumer needs and desires by giving customers a good reason to visit their stores.

The trends go beyond the grocery and apparel categories. Retailers across a wide range of specialties are finding new ways to engage shoppers. In Levin Management Corporation’s most recent tenant survey, nearly 40 percent of participants indicated they have adapted their business model in response to e-commerce growth. Among those respondents, many are adding in-store services and incentives, incorporating in-store pickup and return options for purchases made online, and increasing coordination with their online operations. Others are altering store inventory, introducing experience draws and/or changing their store prototypes.

Now Batting: The Healthcare Revolution
In addition to the shopping habits of Millennials and Baby Boomers, one significant driver in shifting tenant mixes ties directly to public policy. Changing healthcare laws are incentivizing people to choose walk-in clinics over trips to the ER. At the same time, hospital systems are decreasing operating costs and improving customer service by establishing outpatient services in non-medical satellite locations. The resulting boost in space demand has come at a time when retail supply has been plentiful, giving rise to a new breed of non-traditional tenants.

Urgent-care, imaging centers, doctor’s offices and dentistry chains in retail settings have something in common with their non-traditional predecessor, the fitness tenant. A shopping center-based trip to the doctor, like a workout at a gym, evolves into a visit to the grocery store or a lunch at a nearby restaurant. In this regard, healthcare tenants are queued up to become the next “normal” retail space users.

The bottom line is that shopping center tenant mixes and tenants themselves, have always evolved to accommodate social trends. The retail industry will continue to re-invent itself to survive – and thrive. And so will retail real estate.

Fast Casual Eateries are Giving Retail Real Estate a Healthy Boost

Retail Trend: Scramble for Small Restaurant Space Creates a Landlord’s Market
Millennial diners want their quinoa bowls in a hurry and that’s good news for retail real estate companies. Fast casual restaurants – the popular source of healthy, affordable fare – are hungry for 1,500 to 3,000 square foot spaces in shopping venues nationwide. They’re competing with each other and with nail salons, spas and downsizing retailers who are eying the same sized spaces, creating a hot market for retail leasing. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that this competition has “driven lease rates to astounding levels” and created a “landlord’s market.” (Read more: http://www.eater.com/2016/4/28/11523694/restaurant-real-estate) And Jesse Tron, spokesperson for International Council of Shopping Centers calls the current climate “hyper-competitive.”

Tenants in this niche within our leased and managed portfolio include Saladworks, Good Mood Restaurant and Bubbakoo’s Burritos. As tenant representative we work with Dig Inn, the hip, highly popular Boston-based chain, currently on the move into new East Coast markets. So, naturally, we’re staying focused on what’s happening with fast casual restaurants.

Efficient and Appealing, Fast Casual Tops the Industry in Growth and Sales Volume
Led by the rise of Chipotle and Panera in the early 90’s, fast casual fused the speed and convenience of fast food with menus featuring healthy fare. It’s a winning combination, growing the category 550 percent since 1990 and driving the annual growth of fast casual sales to 11.4 percent in 2015, double the rate of any other restaurant segment. Fast casual, which now comprises 7.7 percent of the industry, is expected to lead restaurant sales through 2022, as Millennial diners take healthy dining further with demands for food that is locally raised, according to sustainable and humane practices.(Read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/02/02/the-chipotle-effect-why-america-is-obsessed-with-fast-casual-food/?utm_term=.cd1fb581cc35)

Consumer appeal lies at the core of fast casual’s success, but it’s not the sole factor in this segment’s growth. Operationally, the concept is amazingly efficient. Sit-down diners are served in under 8 minutes and 50 percent of orders are take-out. This means a high volume of business can be transacted in a space about one-third the size of the average casual restaurant.

National Brand vs. Local Favorite: Which One Gets the Lease?
Faced with tenants vying for space, managers of retail real estate find themselves
weighing a number of factors when awarding a lease. Fitting out a restaurant space
even one of modest size – is more expensive than a retail store or an office. Ventilation, special kitchen requirements, and local regulations spike construction costs. A successful fast casual establishment, however, can offset that initial investment, not just in rent but in driving shopping center visits which, in turn, attract more demand for leases.

The choice is often between an independent or regional chain and a big national brand. Both bring positive buzz but savvy landlords, especially in the case of shopping centers or malls, tend to choose big names. Brand recognition, a record of success and deep pockets tend to win out. Emerging retail areas in urban neighborhoods, where there may be resistance to chains, may be the exception to this trend.

What’s Ahead: Fast Casual – A Role in Reviving the Mall
As brick-and-mortar stores shutter or scale back, food and entertainment may breathe new life into malls and shopping centers. Ron Ruggles of Nation’s Restaurant News sees a rosy future for retail venues that provide an inviting mix of entertainment, food and shopping to create a community experience that online can’t match. Fast casual, with its Millennial appeal, will have a big role to play in this new environment that replaces transactions with experiences.
(Read more:
http://www.themarketmogul.com/implications-rise-fast-casual-restaurants-real-estate.)