Experts elaborate on the sector’s performance, who’s driving activity and what a recession could bring.
By the numbers, overall retail fundamentals are solid. For example, in its first-quarter 2023 market outlook, CBRE reported that although sales growth has slowed, the sector remains resilient.
The national average retail availability reached 4.8 percent in the first quarter, a record low since CBRE began tracking this data in 2005. Furthermore, absorption remained positive for the 10th consecutive quarter. And despite major store closings, i.e., Bed Bath & Beyond, the industry is as dynamic as ever.
Sales growth decreased last year, but the National Retail Federation predicts an uptick to between 4 and 6 percent in 2023. Despite bank turmoil, rising interest rates and a potential recession, consumer spending was strong in the first quarter, a trend that is predicted to continue.
While consumers are thoughtful about their spending, sales numbers in the U.S. remain strong, with brick and mortar being as important as ever, Ariel Schuster, Vice Chairman with Newmark, told Commercial Property Executive.
Most fundamentals look promising, but not all retailers will have a strong year and leasing is bound to fare differently for various merchants.
“I think the merchants that are impacted will cut store count and that will mean marginal deals will be tougher to do,” Sandy Sigal, president & CEO of NewMark Merrill Cos., told CPE. “That being said, good sites will continue to draw good tenants. And since fewer sites are really defined as good sites and so much of what we do is infill, we would anticipate a fairly strong leasing year.”
How a recession might impact retail leasing
Overall, retail can be more resilient to the effects of a recession than other property types. This is not to say, however, that the sector is recession-proof. Should we find ourselves in a downturn in the latter half of this year, certain subsectors, and therefore certain retailers, would slow down their overall activity.
Colliers National Director of Retail Services & Practice Groups, U.S., Anjee Solanki, explained that between 2011 and 2019, the average year-over-year retail spending growth was approximately 3.1 percent. Colliers now anticipates the figure to reach roughly 3.5 percent in 2023 and beyond. As consumers may slow down spending on big ticket items if a recession hits, they will still likely keep up spending on groceries, dining and entertainment.
“People really value those experiential types of events and stores,” said Nicole Larson, manager, National Retail Research at Colliers. “Even with the word recession being thrown around, we have heard from so many retailers since the beginning of this year looking to expand nationally and also internationally.”
While certain companies are still aggressively expanding, it is inevitable that a recession would put others out of business. “(A recession) definitely impacts tenants who rely on discretionary spending,” Sigal explained. “(Slowing consumer spending) will knock some tenants out of the market or limit their growth, and is already leading to some tenants closing up shop.”
As a result of some of the consumer withdrawal that could occur during a recession, some tenants will be forced to pull out of leasing deals. Chris Wilson, National Agency Lead, Retail, JLL, said that this pause on deals leads to rising vacancy rates as tenants naturally go out of business or tenant failures take place.
“In my experience, the last people to know that a retailer has pulled back their transaction activity is their real estate team on the ground,” Wilson explained. In the past, a slowing of consumer spending has led to unexplained deal failure. However, due to the cyclical nature of real estate, Wilson says the market will find a way to balance itself. “Supply and demand always in time find equilibrium,” he said.
Who is driving demand, who is taking a backseat?
Throughout the country, value retailers demonstrate massive strength in terms of leasing activity, experts agreed. Whether it be value clothing, value mass merchants or value grocery, the demand for space is strong. These value stores are common household names: Target, Ross, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, 5 Below, Trader Joe’s. This trend even extends to value gyms like Planet Fitness. The quick service restaurant (QSR) and restaurant space retailers are also seeing high leasing transaction volumes.
“Clearly, the food and restaurant operators in this country have really made haste since COVID-19 and are continuing to do so,” Wilson said.
It is not just the Dunkin’ Donuts, Raising Cane’s and Chick-fil-A brands that are continuing to do a lot of leasing deals (to be clear, they are), but also the general restaurant and QSR retailers. Larson told CPE that recent Colliers data shows that restaurant visits saw an 18 percent year-over-year growth in March 2023 in terms of foot traffic. With more foot traffic comes more income and further leasing opportunities.
Another common segment with high foot traffic numbers that experts agree is doing extremely well is grocery. Grocery retailers are expanding to new markets, exploring opportunities where consumer migration patterns are happening and will pick up business should the economy continue to slow.
However, not all companies are driving up leasing activity numbers across the nation. For example, while specialty fitness and spa services are doing well, full-sized health clubs are taking a step back, multiple sources noted. Similarly, there are fewer movie theater deals being done.
“Entertainment-themed retail used to be dominated by theaters,” Wilson explained. “Now they’re not. They’re dominated by top golf and more experiential retail… The consumer wants to be entertained and entertainment-themed retailers are out there trying to figure out ways to entertain them.”
The reasons behind why certain players are driving demand today when others were driving leasing demand last year is, in every case, highly nuanced.
“It is hard to pin an overall ‘why’ to leasing demand among retailers, but our global Live-Work-Shop report found that, post pandemic, people are living their lives much more deliberately,” Brandon Isner, head of Retail Research for the Americas at CBRE, told CPE. “They are thinking more quality over quantity. Retailers which offer an authentic product will thrive and will continue growing.”
Spaces retailers are keen on
Deciding on a specific type of retail space that is most sought-after is highly subjective, but there are some general trends throughout the nation as to what retailers prefer. In urban areas, Wilson explained that both big and small box spaces are popular. Typical big box retail companies have been seeking space in urban markets for some 20 years due to its typically high-density, high-income nature. However, these spaces come with constraints.
“The impediments for big box retailers (in urban areas) is supply, as the supply is constrained by land values, by competition from non-retail uses like residential and very much by municipal impositions, zoning restrictions, red tape, bureaucracy and all the rest of it,” he said.
Many retailers would like to find their way into urban spaces and are therefore finding ways to scale back on the size of their preferred footprint. “Another trend which isn’t exactly new is that of retailers relaxing on their rigid space requirements, instead focusing more on the location,” Isner said. “Many retailers will build out a non-traditional store, if it’s a great space.”
Many retailers are now also showing interest in urban Class B to B+ real estate. These assets are garnering attention where they previously didn’t as a trend across the nation.
Outside of urban spaces, some specified retail locations and property subtypes are outperforming others. A first-quarter 2023 Colliers retail report shows that, in the U.S.. shopping centers saw 2.1 million square feet of absorption, while malls saw a negative 0.15 million square feet of net absorption. Consumers are prioritizing being immersed in the community when it comes to handling their daily needs and many retailers are coming to the conclusion that locating in a space with higher foot traffic is extremely valuable.
“When you go into these lifestyle projects you have such a mix of traditional and nontraditional uses,” Solanki said. “It’s really all about the foot traffic and the GLA (gross leasable area) of a project. The bigger the project, the more foot traffic because people tend to like to shop where they can spend several hours.”
Although it is still comparatively cheaper for retailers to locate in shopping centers as opposed to malls, as more companies move to these types of areas, rental rates are increasing, Larson explained. In the first quarter of this year, shopping centers had a 1.3 percent increase in rates while malls saw a 0.7 percent uptick, according to the same report. Experts don’t see this trend going away.
“Some retailers which have been traditionally mall-based are thinking of closing underperforming stores in malls and re-opening in more suburban-based open air centers, often grocery-anchored,” Isner explained. “That ‘everyday’ foot traffic you find in a grocery store is quite desirable to retailers. Fitness centers are also a great co-tenant.”
As neighborhood, strip-center and community formats continue to increase in popularity among retailers, having several size layouts and prototypes is becoming crucial to many retail business plans.
“A lot of retailers are looking at being much more flexible and more nimble and customizing their storefronts based on the type of project,” Solanki said. “So, whether it’s a power center, lifestyle, grocery-anchored only or a mall or outlet, they are looking to create this more customized approach.”
Retail leasing activity across the nation
Following domestic migration is one way to tell where retailers want to be. Data recently released by the Census Bureau and JLL shows that demographic momentum for the nation’s major urban cores is picking up. The report shows that 74 percent of national central business district inventory saw positive momentum for domestic migration in the past year.
“A very interesting subset of our business is retail assets that are in urban communities that are entirely subject to the recovery of those communities,” said Wilson, who explained that he is incredibly bullish on the upcoming potential for urban and CBD retail.
New York, a city that recovered rapidly post-COVID-19, saw the most retail leasing activity in 2022, followed by Dallas, Houston, Greater Los Angeles and Chicago, Colliers data shows.
“I am a 100 percent believer in cities coming back to full volume…” said Schuster. “I know investors who are looking at where to put their money are now focusing on the downtowns of all major cities.”
In terms of the newer markets, experts anticipate to see high retail leasing activity in Texas. Houston currently leads in retail construction, while Austin is in the top 10 for retail leasing activity, Larson said. Phoenix, Miami and Orlando, Fla., are also in high demand.
“There are varied reasons on why a market will outperform,” said Isner. “Population growth is a big piece, but so is the strength of the local economy, tourism and net migration. Tertiary markets have experienced significant growth in population over the last several years, due to net migration.”
In terms of business strategies, locations, store sizes and property types, retailers now need to be flexible. When there isn’t space in urban markets, they can find the right locations in dense suburban markets. While cities are expected to see strong leasing activity, so are the areas around them.
“This whole opti-channel approach is what we are really talking about this year,” said Solanki. “It’s not portfolio optimization. It’s much more than that because there are so many new channels in terms of how the store can act as a sales generator and a revenue generator.”
Article by By Jordana Rothberg for CPE
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