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.

After a Strong 2016, Our Retail Tenant’s Outlook is Optimistic

Annual LMC Outlook Survey Reveals Growth Trend, Continued Evolution
Retailers in our 95-property, 13 million-square-foot shopping center portfolio are feeling good about the future. In fact, three quarters (74.5 percent) of respondents in our annual Retail Sentiment Outlook Survey of store managers are optimistic about their anticipated 2017 performance – the highest percentage in the January poll’s six-year history. As a regional leader in retail real estate, this is the kind of news we love to hear.

Survey Respondents Report Record Sales Performance in 2016; Bricks and Mortar Stores Continued to Attract Shoppers
According to our President Matthew K. Harding, the percentage of respondents reporting 2016 sales at the same or higher level (68.8 percent) was the highest in Outlook survey history. Our finding reflects a positive year for retail nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 2016 retail sales rose 3.3 percent over 2015; for context, 2015 retail sales were up 2.1 percent from 2014.

The holiday season yielded a record performance, too, with survey respondents reporting sales and shopper traffic at the same or higher level than last year. These were the strongest in survey history at 75.6 and 74.4, respectively. “Industry experts agree that the recent holiday season was good for retail, yet some have indicated e-commerce was the real winner over bricks and mortar,” Harding said. “From a ground-level perspective we are seeing a different story – one illustrating the ongoing relevance of physical stores in our portfolio, which is comprised mostly of open-air shopping centers.”

Supporting our findings, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) in its Post-Holiday Shopping Survey found consumers spent an average of $711 on gifts and seasonal items during the holidays – a 16 percent increase over 2015’s post-holiday survey results. Further, ICSC reported 91 percent of holiday shoppers spent at bricks-and-mortar locations.

Expansion Plans Are Heating Up:  A 2017 Retail Trend to Watch
When we asked survey participants about their companies’ expansion plans for 2017, more than one-third (35.1 percent) indicated their brand plans to open additional stores.

“Again, our findings may seem to counter current headlines reporting ongoing store closings by major retailers,” Harding said. “But in the 65 years we’ve been leasing and managing retail properties we have witnessed the ongoing transformation of retail. Ultimately, concepts come and go, creating opportunities for new and expanding players. Today is no different, and our tenants are proving this point.”

Qualified Job Candidates: Retail Is Facing a Growing Scarcity
The decline in unemployment and its impact on retail hiring also was addressed in the Outlook Survey. Only about one-quarter (23.6 percent) of respondents have seen changes in the hiring climate related to the tightening jobs market. Of that group, more than half (51.7 percent) indicated they are seeing fewer applications from qualified job candidates, and nearly half (46.6 percent) said they are experiencing demand for higher starting salaries.

Tenant Business Models Are Adapting to Impact of E-commerce
The e-commerce phenomenon – and its impact on bricks-and-mortar – has remained top-of-mind for us. As leaders in retail real estate we are continuing to gauge how our tenants are taking competitive action. In the 2017 Outlook Survey, we asked our tenants how they have adapted their business models in response to e-commerce’s growth.

Marking a notable jump from the last two times the question was asked, 55.2 percent of survey participants indicated they have adapted in some way. This compares to 38.2 percent of respondents in the 2016 Mid-Year Survey and 37.3 percent at mid-year 2015. Among that group, our retail tenants have:

  • Added in-store services and/or incentives (50.9 percent).
  • Added in-store pickup and returns options for purchases made online (37.9 percent).
  • Increased coordination between online and bricks-and-mortar operations (30.2 percent).
  • Added “experience” draws such as demonstrations, classes, performances or other in-store events (28.4 percent).
  • Altered store inventory, such as having fewer in-stock SKUs or larger quantities of popular items (25.0 percent).
  • Altered store prototype, such as reducing store size or increasing focus on showrooming (17.2 percent).

In turn, 57.5 percent of the respondents who have adapted in response to e-commerce say they have seen a benefit in terms of sales and/or in-store traffic. That percentage compares to 43.0 percent at mid-year 2016 and 52.1 percent at mid-year 2015.

“In our last two mid-year surveys, about one-third of tenants (32.9 percent and 30.9 percent) were unsure of whether their efforts were making a positive impact,” said Melissa Sievwright, vice president of marketing. “The number shrank to less than a quarter (24.4 percent) in the 2017 Outlook Survey, indicating that tenants are beginning to see more measurable results.

“This is very good news in an environment requiring retailers to continually reinvent themselves,” she added. “We anticipate continued changes as our tenants strive to establish the best mix of services and incentives, and elevate and personalize the shopping experience to draw customers into their stores.”

Levin Mid-Year Survey Yields Strongest YTD Sales Report in Poll’s History

Influential Retail Real Estate Trends Include Technology and E-Commerce
The results of our mid-year Retail Sentiment Survey are in and the news is good, with our tenants reporting strong year-to-date performance. They’re optimistic about the months ahead and are continuing to leverage technology to stay competitive in the e-commerce-influenced retail landscape.

Retail Real Estate Tenants Cite Numerous Causes for Optimism
Our latest poll of store managers in our 95-property, 13 million-square-foot shopping center portfolio yielded the strongest percentage (65.8 percent) of participants in the survey’s five-year history reporting mid-year sales at the same or a higher volume year over year. This represents a jump from 51.9 percent reporting same-or-higher sales at mid-year 2015 and 42.9 percent at mid-year 2014. Similarly, 61.3 percent of participants reported the same or a higher volume of shopper traffic to date in 2016 compared to 2015.

“Retail is experiencing solid momentum following the stock market volatility and bankruptcy announcements that kicked off the year,” said our president Matthew K. Harding. “The latest retail sales data from the U.S. Commerce Department, which shows a 2.4 percent year-over-year increase for March to May, reinforces what our tenants are saying. At this year’s International Council of Shopping Centers’ well-attended RECon in Las Vegas, expansion was an overarching theme among national retailers – another confirmation of a positive trajectory.”

So, it’s no surprise that a full 67.0 percent of our survey participants expect sales to continue at the same pace or improve through the remainder of 2016.

The Digital Revolution is Here to Stay
Like most savvy retailers, tenants at our leased and managed properties are employing digital technology – such as online ads, mobile apps, social media, email and texting – to attract customers to their stores. And our survey found that technology’s importance is growing. Of respondents active in tech-centered marketing, 42.4 percent have upped its usage year over year; while 52.7 percent said their usage levels had remained at the same level.

Retail Real Estate Trends: Digital is Reaching Customers Everywhere
When it comes to engaging customers in-store, mobile device apps (such as those for coupons, discounts, loyalty points and/or rapid payment) are the most popular tools – employed by 69.9 percent of respondents active in tech-centered marketing. Levin tenants appear to be on the right track; a recent ICSC customer engagement survey found that two thirds of consumers in the U.S. use their mobile devices while shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores. Other popular tools among survey participants include free in-store Wi-Fi (49.3 percent), post-sale online surveys (41.9 percent) and electronic receipts (28.7 percent).

Levin tenants are going with tech to reach customers outside their stores. “For the second year, social media and email ranked as most popular among survey respondents active in tech-centered marketing, used by 79.4 and 78.1 percent, respectively,” said Melissa Sievwright, vice president of marketing. “The power of these tools is clear, and social should be on everyone’s radar. In fact, a Deloitte study found that ‘shoppers are 29 percent more likely to make a purchase the same day when they use social media to help shop.’ ”

Facebook Leads the Social Media Marketing Pack
Among Levin survey participants with social media in their marketing mix, Facebook dominates, with 91.3 percent of respondents using it. Other popular platforms include Twitter (36.9 percent), Instagram (34.2 percent) and Google+ (32.2 percent).

Business Models are Evolving as Tech Expands
As bricks-and-mortar stores seek success online, many retailers are finding new ways to serve and engage customers. Our retail real estate tenants are no exception. In our mid-year 2016 poll, 38.2 percent of participants indicated they have adapted their business model in response to e-commerce growth.

Those respondents are adding in-store services and incentives (62.7 percent), offering in-store pickup and returns options for online purchases (57.6 percent); and/or increasing collaboration with their online counterparts (44.1 percent). Some are altering store inventory (35.6 percent); introducing “experience” draws (30.5 percent); and/or changing their store prototypes (13.6 percent).

“We expect the experiential retail trend, especially, to gain momentum,” Sievwright said. “The re-invention of this industry is well underway, driven both by tech advances and new shopper preferences. Millennials and Baby Boomers alike are opting to invest in experiences over things. Smart companies are melding lifestyle with shopping and giving consumers a reason to step into the store.”

Investors in Retail Real Estate Are Seeking Expert Advice

Levin Expands Its Third-Party Services to Meet Growing Demand

By Joseph Lowry, SVP-Leasing and Acquisitions

A paradigm shift is underway in retail and in the retail real estate industry. One result is a surge in the demand for third-party services. In the last 28 months, our investment advisory practice took on over 21 new retail leasing and management assignments. We’re cheered by the strong economic momentum both nationally and regionally, but the flip side is that negotiations are getting tougher as investors look for that illusive ironclad deal. It’s a climate in which investors need guidance from leaders in commercial retail real estate. Here are some of our observations on the current state of this dynamic market, plus a quick look at how we’re assisting our investor clients.

Game Changers for Tenants: Online, Mergers and New Competitors
First, let’s look at the tenant side of retail real estate today. The evolution of online shopping undeniably has spurred changes for bricks-and-mortar stores. Merger activity is creating growth in scale for some retailers, but at the same time, consolidation is closing many locations. Preferred anchor categories, like supermarkets, are feeling the heat as discount and high-end grocers challenge their mid-level counterparts and drug, dollar and big-box department stores incorporate food into their inventory. Investors looking for shopping centers need to focus on the quality of every property they consider.

Top-Quality Retail Investment Property is a Scarce Commodity Today
Flight to quality is the hallmark of today’s commercial real estate market. Hundreds of millions of dollars in capital are chasing a limited supply of core institutional-grade properties. As a result, we’re working on more and more deals involving value-add or core-plus properties. And we’re finding that more buyers are willing to look at these asset classes than previously.

Six Factors That Must Be Analyzed Before Investing in a Commercial Property
Whether a property is institutional grade, value-add or core-plus, whether it’s broker-listed or an off-market deal, certain key factors need expert evaluation. These include an analysis of capital requirements, operating statements, rent rolls, debt levels, the condition of the property, and the state of the local market. Savvy investors are relying more and more on third-party providers who can bring a granular level of knowledge to the assessment process.

Retail real estate companies, like Levin, that maintain full in-house capabilities in leasing, accounting, property management, construction management and marketing are best positioned to assist investors in evaluating properties. Our years of hands-on experience in construction management is especially valuable in identifying physical conditions that represent future risk. Our regional focus is also of significant worth, providing strong brokerage connections and up-to-the-minute awareness of both listed – and unlisted – retail real estate investment opportunities.

Levin’s Support Extends Beyond Closing
After closing, many of our clients turn to us to develop and execute a successful operational strategy, assuring maximized property value throughout the entire investment cycle. In fact, a number of the assignments we’ve won in the past two years involve recently traded properties – for both new and repeat clients. These organizations look to us to establish, maintain and improve competitive positioning for their assets.

Today’s commercial retail real estate market holds tremendous opportunities for well-informed investors. Levin’s decades-long experience, encompassing every facet of the industry, makes us a valuable partner throughout the transaction phase and beyond.

Investors in Retail Real Estate Are Seeking Expert Advice

By Joseph Lowry, SVP-Leasing and Acquisitions

Levin Expands Its Third-Party Services to Meet Growing Demand
A paradigm shift is underway in retail and in the retail real estate industry. One result is a surge in the demand for third-party services. In the last 28 months, our investment advisory practice took on over 21 new retail leasing and management assignments. We’re cheered by the strong economic momentum both nationally and regionally, but the flip side is that negotiations are getting tougher as investors look for that illusive ironclad deal. It’s a climate in which investors need guidance from leaders in commercial retail real estate. Here are some of our observations on the current state of this dynamic market, plus a quick look at how we’re assisting our investor clients.

Game Changers for Tenants: Online, Mergers and New Competitors
First, let’s look at the tenant side of retail real estate today. The evolution of online shopping undeniably has spurred changes for bricks-and-mortar stores. Merger activity is creating growth in scale for some retailers, but at the same time, consolidation is closing many locations. Preferred anchor categories, like supermarkets, are feeling the heat as discount and high-end grocers challenge their mid-level counterparts and drug, dollar and big-box department stores incorporate food into their inventory. Investors looking for shopping centers need to focus on the quality of every property they consider.

Top-Quality Retail Investment Property is a Scarce Commodity Today
Flight to quality is the hallmark of today’s commercial real estate market. Hundreds of millions of dollars in capital are chasing a limited supply of core institutional-grade properties. As a result, we’re working on more and more deals involving value-add or core-plus properties. And we’re finding that more buyers are willing to look at these asset classes than previously.

Six Factors That Must Be Analyzed Before Investing in a Commercial Property
Whether a property is institutional grade, value-add or core-plus, whether it’s broker-listed or an off-market deal, certain key factors need expert evaluation. These include an analysis of capital requirements, operating statements, rent rolls, debt levels, the condition of the property, and the state of the local market. Savvy investors are relying more and more on third-party providers who can bring a granular level of knowledge to the assessment process.

Retail real estate companies, like Levin, that maintain full in-house capabilities in leasing, accounting, property management, construction management and marketing are best positioned to assist investors in evaluating properties. Our years of hands-on experience in construction management is especially valuable in identifying physical conditions that represent future risk. Our regional focus is also of significant worth, providing strong brokerage connections and up-to-the-minute awareness of both listed – and unlisted – retail real estate investment opportunities.

Levin’s Support Extends Beyond Closing
After closing, many of our clients turn to us to develop and execute a successful operational strategy, assuring maximized property value throughout the entire investment cycle. In fact, a number of the assignments we’ve won in the past two years involve recently traded properties – for both new and repeat clients. These organizations look to us to establish, maintain and improve competitive positioning for their assets.

Today’s commercial retail real estate market holds tremendous opportunities for well-informed investors. Levin’s decades-long experience, encompassing every facet of the industry, makes us a valuable partner throughout the transaction phase and beyond.