As Armageddons go, the retail apocalypse is turning out to be short-lived. After a few years of headlines blaring about devastation and the scourge of e-commerce for physical stores, retailers in recent quarters are posting healthy comps and increases in foot traffic.
“The term ‘retail apocalypse’ has been misused for years,” said Michael Brown, partner in the retail practice of global strategy and management consultancy A.T. Kearney and author of the report The Future of Shopping Centers. “Throughout the whole shifting dynamic in retail, the one thing that has never changed is the need to have compelling goods and services offered with convenience and a price people are willing to pay. Retail, in general, is not a physical or digital world.”
And retail generally appears to be on the rebound. Retail comp sales in the second quarter were up 4.2% year over year (4% excluding retail giant Walmart), the highest level since 2007, according to a Retail Metrics report emailed to Retail Dive, which noted that 19 retailers to date have reported negative Q2 comps, “down dramatically from Q1 when 38 chain[s] turned in negative same store sales and 1Q17 when 60 companies did so.”
It’s still not a pretty picture on the ground, however. Second quarter mall rents fell 4.6% from the first quarter and 7.1% year over year, hit by major store closures from Toys R Us, Sears and J.C. Penney, according to a trend report from commercial real estate firm JLL. Mall vacancy rates hit 4% during the period, JLL said. The retail sector suffered its worst quarter in nine years with net absorption of negative 3.8 million square feet, which pushed the regional mall vacancy rate up by 0.2% to 8.6% as the average mall rent increased 0.3%, according to another report from commercial real estate firm Reis emailed to Retail Dive.
All in all, retail consolidation will continue to make headlines in 2018, but regional mall defaults are unlikely to reach the levels seen last year, according to Morningstar Credit Ratings, LLC. That’s partly because so many big store closure plans (like Macy’s, Toys’ and J.C. Penney’s) will have been mostly executed. Plus, shopping centers are filling their vacancies, though often with non-retail tenants. Architect Stan Laegreid, a principal at Field Paoli Architects and the designer of several high-end malls, says we’ll soon notice that new mall designs will increasingly be hospitality, rather than retail focused, from the jump.
But it’s also because the remaining chains are doing better, as they’ve overhauled both stores and merchandise, in part with proceeds from last year’s tax windfall.
“A number of our retailers are getting better and healthier. And I think the tax cut on their business gave them more earnings to invest or replenish their merchandise,” David Simon, CEO of Simon Property Group, Inc. told analysts last month, according to a transcript from Seeking Alpha. “We’re working through a number of the bankruptcies and replacing them with better retailers. We’re upgrading our mix, so you put it all together and I think that’s what’s generated at least the increase in sales.”
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Is it e-commerce?
As thousands of U.S. stores have shuttered in recent years, falling sales were being attributed to everything from bad weather to a still-hesitant consumer, yet e-commerce kept humming. It’s a two-fer that’s led to store closures and tactical shifts.
Toys R Us threw in the towel, Macy’s contracted its massive footprint, and Sears and J.C. Penney have struggled, and all that precipitated significant store closures. Legacy retailers, meanwhile — department stores like Macy’s, mass merchants like Target and specialty retailers like Best Buy and teen apparel chains — have all turned…