failed shopping malls

There was a local politician on Long Island a while ago who had an unusual campaign position on gun control.  He argued that guns don’t kill people; bullets do.   Therefore, we should not control the purchase or possession of firearms;  we should control the purchase/possession of bullets, the real culprits.  He lost–or at least I hope he did.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday, apparently based on a recent Wells Fargo research report on failed shopping malls.  Its conclusion:  dead shopping malls are being killed, not by online shopping, but by the proliferation of newer, larger, more glitzy, better-located other malls.

There is certainly something more to this argument than to the bullet one.  Commercial real estate is a boom and bust business.  Developers put up new structures with relentless fervor until the day the banks shut down their access to credit.  And that usually doesn’t happen until the first bankruptcies of failed projects begin to appear.  As the old banking adage goes, “You never get promoted by turning down a loan.”

So, yes, older, smaller, less well-located malls are losing out to newer ones.  And the loss of anchor stores is usually the signal that the party is over.

But if we do a little arithmetic with the Census Bureau data on retail sales in the US, we can conclude that although online retail sales represent less than 10% of the total, they account for half the overall growth in retail.  Bricks-and-mortar retail is advancing, if that’s the right word, at about 2% a year.  It may be that if we adjust for inflation, the movement of physical goods through the traditional retail chain is flat.  So because of the internet there is no need for any net new mall space in the US.

From a retail firm’s perspective, BAM revenue growth is probably only going to come by taking sales away from competitors.  In a mature environment like this, cost control becomes an increasingly important source of profit growth.  Both factors imply firms should have better control over floor space and adjust it frequently to be in the most attractive locations.

Who knows what mall developers actually do, but if it were me any new project would need to explicitly target aging malls in its vicinity.   Those would be the primary source of the revenues that would make the project viable.

Two conclusions:

–if half the growth in retail weren’t being siphoned off by the internet, I’d guess the tectonic plates of malldom wouldn’t be shifting as violently as they are now, and

–the idea that ownership of physical store premises is a hidden source of value for mature retail firms (think:  the attack on JC Penney) has passed its use-by date.

 

 

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