Chasing the rooftops, 2.0

By Jeff Green

The economic crisis affected nearly everyone in the retail sector, but the retailers and developers who were hardest hit happened to live by a common rallying cry: “chase the rooftops.” The idea, of course, was to aggressively expand out in the exurbs as quickly as possible. Few had a problem with ramping up construction of new stores and shopping centers in these far-flung areas. In fact, Wall Street effectively insisted upon the strategy, chanting “Grow! Grow! Grow!” at every available opportunity. After all, America’s roaring residential market would eventually bring density to every last nook and cranny in the country. Better get into these markets now, the thinking went, before the best locations are gone.

Well, we know how that story turned out: Either the rooftops never went up at all in many of these exurban neighborhoods, or the subprime borrowers who took advantage of teaser rates to get into newly built homes were evicted after the bubble burst and their payments went up. Unlikely as it might sound, however, “chasing the rooftops” is making a comeback yet again — only in a different direction.

Whether you’re talking about development or redevelopment, retailers always dictate what developers do. And today, retailers of all types and sizes are saying, in effect, that they can no longer build for population growth and, instead, need to build in areas where strong populations are already in place. Thus, retailers have turned their backs on the exurbs and are chasing the existing rooftops, closer to the city (or even within the urban core). Having been burned by their exurban strategies, even large-footprint stalwarts such as Walmart and Target are looking within, so to speak, to find new opportunities. So, too, are a growing number of supermarkets and junior-anchor specialty retailers.

This strategy has always worked. Landlords such as Jacksonville, Fla.-based Regency Centers have done well by focusing on the best grocery-anchored centers they could find in densely populated areas. Indeed, in our post-collapse retail landscape, Regency’s basic assumption — that value is all but predicated on density — looks right on target. Why, then, did so many retailers chase phantom housing developments out in the exurbs? They had little choice, given Wall Street’s appetite for growth. For Wall Street, the longer development curves that predominated in closer-in areas were not enough. Investors had a need for quantity and speed.

Today, however, closer-in sites are the only game in town. Drive around first-ring suburbs in major markets across the country and you will hear the rumble of bulldozers once again. Some developers are doing relatively cosmetic makeovers of their centers’ facades. Others are knocking their properties down completely. Closer in, the retail demand is strong enough that these landlords can afford to push the “reset” button and start all over again.

Historically, whenever owners have redeveloped a center, one of their biggest challenges has been figuring out how to fit retailers’ fixed prototype stores into the existing framework. In the worst-case scenarios, they simply couldn’t do the deals they wanted to do. It was a bit like trying to put together a puzzle that came with incorrectly sized pieces.

But one of the biggest shifts in retail as of late is the new willingness among chains to actually modify their prototypes in order to fit into urban and first-ring centers. Oftentimes in the past, chains would not do the deal if the available space did not meet their specifications exactly. To the delight of centers’ leasing and development teams, however, that paradigm has shifted. Even Walmart has openly embraced the idea of smaller-format stores.

Meanwhile, trends like environmental concerns and high gas prices — whether short-term spikes caused by turmoil overseas or long-term increases brought on by the global economic recovery — bode well for closer-in properties. If gas prices keep going up, as many believe they will, how many shoppers will want to make, say, a three-hour round-trip journey to get to one of those far-flung outlet centers? Some might even give up driving to that super-regional mall a couple of counties away.

Does all this mean redevelopment is a magic bullet for any first-ring or urban property? Not exactly. Clearly, some centers have strategic advantages over others. Tomorrow’s winners will be those centers that are retail, dining and/or entertainment destinations with regional access, but also offer convenience. This is not always doable. Some centers are hamstrung because they are located in-between blocks, rather than on a hard corner. Others might be too expensive to redevelop, possibly because they have been neglected for years. And while centers that have succeeded in landing top destination and convenience tenants will lease-up their small-shop space quickly, the same cannot be said for all of those properties that, for whatever reason, have failed to replace lost anchors.

Nor is this strategy a sure bet for all retailers. The greater possibility of cannibalization, for example, is a legitimate concern. If retailers are going to expand inboard, they had better understand the cannibalization footprint on their surrounding stores. When they were expanding into the exurbs, chains only had to worry about cannibalizing those stores that were located closer in. It was a one-directional equation. When they move closer in, though, they might find that they have sister stores in all four directions. And yet hand-wringing about cannibalization can be overdone, too. In the wake of the economic crisis, retailers’ real estate committees have been laser-focused on meeting the often-narrow criteria set by their companies’ operations departments, which typically have veto power over the entire deal. It is fair enough if retail executives want to nix deals based on myopic criteria. But what about the broader, more strategic questions, like what is in the best interest of the brand? Things like cannibalization and net new sales are important, but there are other factors and long-term implications that should go into deciding where a retailer locates a new store and why.

How long will this inward focus last? My guess is that it will be with us for years to come. The country simply has too many empty stores — and houses — out in its hinterlands for the original “chasing the rooftops” strategy to make sense anytime soon.
Ours will be an age, not of development far from the city, but of redevelopment closer in.

Call it “chasing the rooftops, 2.0.”

Jeff Green is President and CEO of Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners, a leading consultant in retail real estate feasibility, retail expansion planning, medical retail planning, location analysis and commercial land use. For more information, please visit jeffgreenpartners.com.