Thought leadership: A new lease on life for old retail spaces

In a recent announcement, LightBox principal analyst Dianne Crocker predicted that as many as 25% (a quarter) of America’s malls can be expected to close down within the next three to five years.

This is, obviously, a trend that commercial real estate (CRE) professionals – like us within NAI Global – have been aware of and tracking for many years, but the LightBox prediction goes on to offer some idea of what we can expect to see filling these spaces in future and what investors see as the opportunities created by this trend – both projections worth exploring.

The “death of retail” has been hanging over the industry’s head for the better part of a decade, but what is more likely – Crocker and NAI agree – is a move away from brick and mortar towards e-commerce, with a hybrid model in future. This trend was merely heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Amazon effect

This is in line with what trend analysts and futurists like Doug Stevens are forecasting. Stevens told RetailDive last year that by “2033 the majority of our daily consumption will be transacted online”.

“In the future, all but the most convenience-based retailers will begin to use their stores as media to acquire customers and their media platforms as stores to transact sales…” – Doug Stevens, author of “The Retail Revival: Re-Imagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism”.

This tracks: Our most recent Real Estate Outlook study, Q42020, found that over half of the survey respondents (57%) said the “Amazon effect” was expected to have an even larger impact on their CRE markets than the pandemic itself.

A buyer’s market

Crocker argues that the slowdown in deal volumes initiated by the pandemic has left a supply gap, and described the demand from investors as “pent up”.

“Institutional capital right now is focusing its repurposing investments on the safest benefits, the suburban metro areas that have seen meaningful growth in the past year…” – Dianne Crocker, LightBox principal analyst.

Multifunctional malls with a lifestyle component are not only the darling of consumers, but of investors too including private equity firms looking to score a bargain on a distressed CRE asset.

We are seeing this interest spiking too, and not just for straight sales. There is much interest in reusing these generously sized spaces in novel ways.

There are many such developments on the cards around the country. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, plans have been suggested to reconfigure the Orchards Mall with some 116 luxury two-bed apartments, with six-month leases to attract business travelers. Chapel Hill Mall in Akron, Ohio – which was foreclosed – expects to see new life as a business park.

There are also some less-traditional buyers in the market for malls these days. Gaming giant Epic Games recently bought up an almost 90-acre defunct mall in Charlotte, NC, that will be refitted into their new international headquarters.

Repurposing and extended life

The malls that outpace the trend will be those with a strong anchor tenant and those that offer the live-work-play balance. Crocker argues that malls that are grocery-anchored, or those “featuring medical services, pharmacies, gyms, and lifestyle amenities are more likely to survive in their current forms.” This is the kind of mall that will become a hub of urban life, she says.

An anchor tenant with a multichannel presence and a pandemic-proof loyalty is a gamechanger for mall and retail leasing.

Malls also have, we believe, a long life ahead of them as places to showcase goods and establish brand experiences. Raydiant makes digital experience tools for real life spaces. Writing for Forbes in 2020, Raydiant CEO Bobby Marhamat wrote that “in-store experience defines retail for people”.

“Touching products is part of that experience, but helpful staff, well-organized showrooms, unexpected activities, smart technologies and other components all combine to create exceptional experiences…” – Bobby Marhamat, Raydiant.

These factors combined are why smart money is betting on not ‘a death’, but ‘an evolution’ for our malls.

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