Next Steps For Retail Real Estate

Now, as the recession finally begins to lift, brick-and-mortar retailers are studying their real estate concepts and pondering what comes next.

Some will pare store counts, partially in response to online competition. Some will cut store square footage. Others are expanding store numbers and square footage. Some are expanding fulfillment center square footage. Some are not changing. Careful about that.

What are you doing? Is it what you should be doing?

What are retail real estate advisers and technology providers recommending?

Get your arms around the data: "Retail real estate today is like a tale of two cities," said Andy Thomas, president of Atlanta-based Virtual Premise, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Co-Star Group. The company provides real estate management software as a service in the cloud.

"Our customers are focused either on growth or on optimizing portfolios and streamlining operations," continued Thomas.

Whether a retailer is growing or shrinking, Thomas said that the first step in managing retail real estate is to "get your arms around your data."

"You must have easily accessible data about lease renewal dates, payment obligations, property taxes, options for renewal, termination and co-tenancy, percentage rent, common area maintenance, and so on," Thomas said. "You also need store performance data — sales and profitability. Are your stores producing great sales without satisfactory profitability?"

What about each of the centers in which you have stores? Is it healthy? Do you want to move when the lease is up? What are your options?

Virtual Premise software enables retailers to capture this kind of data, evaluate it and make informed decisions. The company's SaaS system integrates with a retailer's payables, receivables, general accounting and other systems.

How does all of this help? Think about CAM charges. Typically, the landlord sends a bill, and you pay it. "The landlord rarely misses on the low side," said Thomas. "But you just pay the bill because it's easier than paying after you analyze and negotiate.

"Everyone knows it's important to pay bills on time," he added. But a chain with hundreds of stores can easily miss property tax dates and end up paying penalties and interest. "If the data is under control, so are the due dates.

"Our tools give you information that enables you to analyze and negotiate."

Right-size the box and the portfolio: "Buying habits have changed dramatically since the crash in 2008," said Andy Graiser, co-president of A&G Realty Partners in Melville, N.Y. "Purchases are more price-driven than ever. Customers actively look for the best price, going to several different stores and checking websites.

"Customers are shopping every retail website and making purchases with computers, smartphones and tablets from home or while lying on the beach," said Graiser.

That behavior is affecting retail planning in terms of store square footage and portfolio size. Value retailers, winners in the price war, are affected on the positive side.

"Dollar General is doubling the size of its stores from 10,000 sq. ft. to 20,000 sq. ft. to add food," Graiser said. "That in turn may eventually have an effect on grocery store real estate."

Ace Hardware plans to shrink its footprint to 5,000 sq. ft. or less and put a number of new stores into other stores — grocery stores, paint supply stores and whatever else makes sense.

Best Buy is simply closing its larger stores and opening smaller ones with a stripped-down merchandise mix.

Office Depot is reducing store square footage and cutting its SKUs in half.

While retailers are looking for space to right-size their stores, developers are not building many new centers, Graiser noted. In some cases, retailers in A-quality centers might be scrambling for square footage in B+ centers.

"The market is very fluid right now," Graiser continued. "For retailers today, decisions require a lot more science and art than ever before."

All of this is altering A&G Realty's disposition business.

"Retailers are talking to us about their growth strategies today," Graiser said. "And they are taking a different approach to growth. In the past, for instance, retailers would buy a company and go through the process of merging.

"Retailers don't want to do that anymore. Today, they will identify 30 stores that they want. We'll use our capital to buy the company. The retailer will buy 30 stores from us. We'll work out the real estate, inventory, employee and tax issues."

What's your growth potential?: And what level of business should you be doing with your current store portfolio? How does that compare with what you are doing?

"We help retailers understand their growth potential," said Tom Buxton, founder and chairman of Fort Worth, Texas-based Buxton, which markets sophisticated analytics software applications that evaluate store locations and customers. "Our clients' primary focus is on making the best choices to maximize every real estate opportunity and strategically grow their footprints.

"Our tools give retailers the ability to see their customers and how they interact with brands online and in the store — at particular locations — while providing insights into how customers respond to marketing and merchandising techniques inside the store."

By evaluating this information, retailers can gain an understanding of which locations have the potential to grow and which do not, enabling them to develop plans to add resources here and cut resources there.

"When a retailer is cutting back, it becomes even more essential to pare and retain the right locations," Buxton said.

Buxton's real estate platform is called SCOUT. It is a Web-based portal that enables real estate teams to view and analyze markets with complex predictive real estate models. It will report on how a particular site will perform in terms of revenue and how it will affect the performance of the local or regional network of stores.

"This technology can improve site selection by giving accurate revenue forecasts," continued Buxton. "While you will certainly still need boots on the ground, technology can open up the lines of communication between field teams and corporate, and minimize the risk of opening a bad location. Look to these tools for strategic guidance and validation of your judgments."

Maximizing real estate value: In today's slow-growth economy, every department has to pull its weight and generate value in a way that contributes to the bottom line. That includes real estate departments.

That can be easier said than done. "A retail real estate team is generally geared toward adding stores and growing the portfolio," said Mark Dufton, CEO of Melville, N.Y.-based DJM Realty. "That's what they are good at. Disposition, portfolio analysis, auditing, managing lease renewals are not part of their skill set — but there is a lot of real estate value to be gained from these tasks."

DJM offers a complete set of these kinds of services, beginning with a detailed portfolio analysis that develops targets for each individual store in a chain.

"An analysis will identify stores that are not performing well," said Dufton. "In many cases, it makes sense to exit poor-performing locations that are not part of a chain's core business. Additional strategies might involve selling land and downsizing."

A portfolio analysis can also provide insight into markets that can and cannot support more stores.

Dufton went on to say that gaining control over lease renewals could return value to retailers. When leases come up for renewal, you can negotiate for a reduction in rent. Suppose a co-tenancy issue that you don't care about anymore arises. Your negotiating stance might be that you won't exercise your co-tenancy options in exchange for a reduction in rent.

"A complete portfolio analysis will enable your service provider to lay out a program to extract as much value as possible from your real estate," continued Dufton. "Once the analysis is complete, you can work with your provider to look at the portfolio store by store. Where can you add value by increasing revenues or reducing expenses?"

Know your stores: To know your stores is to control your stores.

"You have to understand what is happening at each of your store locations," said Rick Davis, founder and CEO of Dallas-based DAVACO. "One of the single most important things we do for our clients is to implement inspection, site and marketing surveys."

DAVACO specializes in facilitating multi-site changes. Services include rollouts, retrofits, resets and remodels; turnkey fixture programs; equipment and graphics installations; digital signage and technology upgrades; merchandising; logistics and consolidation; sustainability; inspection, site and marketing surveys; and other special initiatives.

DAVACO uses teams of retail survey professionals to collect an array of data about each store in a chain, continued Davis. Next, DAVACO's ClearThread technology aggregates the data, photos, drawings and other materials and uploads it to a Web-accessible portal. Clients can summarize and analyze the information, find trends, plan for future initiatives and assess general needs.

"It's a cost-effective and efficient way to get full disclosure of your real estate portfolio," Davis added.

He went on to note that it is important for a trained team to conduct these surveys. When store personnel provide the information, it comes back in an inconsistent form that makes it difficult to aggregate and analyze.

Once a retailer understands what is going on at the store level across the chain, it becomes possible to organize comprehensive five-to-seven-year remodeling cycles with annual upgrades as necessary.

"Many retail brands are re-aligning their real estate portfolios to represent the highest-performing locations," Davis said. "They are investing less in new stores and instead are focusing on maximizing existing stores and optimizing the customer in-store experience.

"But before many of these initiatives can happen, it is important to assess existing conditions by getting to know your stores."

Knowing your stores makes comprehensive remodeling possible. Which, of course, makes it more likely that your customers will get to know your stores.