Several months ago, this column introduced you to my colleague Burland East, a real estate maven who shared his unique real estate investment strategy. His “off-index” approach focuses on monopolistic landlords and their “sticky tenants” — renters who for one reason or another are unable or unwilling to move. That gives their landlords more flexibility to raise rents. Data centers and cell phone towers are prime examples in East’s current portfolio.
As East implied, large retail stores like Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears are just the opposite of sticky tenants. If anything, the landlords of shopping malls can’t raise the rents of those tenants because sales are falling. Across the country, some shopping malls are becoming our new ghost towns. (Predictably, there’s a website — DeadMalls.com — tracking their demise.)
Since my last column, East has drilled deeper into the retail sector and found that conditions are worsening faster than he anticipated. He also uncovered what he believes are compelling reasons why — and they go beyond the Amazon effect.
A series of demographic and technology-related trends have changed customer desires in ways that are proving difficult for retailers and their landlords to adapt to. As a result of these changes, retail and shopping center (malls and open-air centers) stocks have seen large declines in values and share prices. Indeed, retail real estate investment trusts have lost more than a quarter of their value from September 2016 through mid-August 2017, as measured by the Dow Jones U.S. Retail REITs Index.
Start with demographics. Anecdotally, East notes, millennials seem less interested in the purchase of things for the “sake of shopping.” The “shop ‘til you drop” attitude of the baby boomers has been replaced by less interest in buying and more interest in experiencing. There is not a lot of hard evidence to back this up, but every conversation he has suggests it’s true. As a result, shopping patterns have changed. A Goldman Sachs’ report on millennials concluded that this cohort of 81 million children born between 1982 and 2002 have different priorities from their parents. They are delaying marriage and homeownership, are burdened with student and credit card debt, have less money to spend, are social and connected, and are the first digital natives.
As East points out, these demographics drive the technology trends to a large extent. Digital skills and social connectedness drive price discovery and comparison shopping, made necessary by millennials’ constrained budgets.