Are shopping malls an endangered species?

Are going-out-of-business sales near for America's malls?

By many accounts, the convenient centers that have been favorites for generations of shoppers appear to be in trouble with a surge in retailers closing locations and increasing online sales.

Global financial services giant Credit Suisse predicted last week that up to 25% of nation's malls could close by 2022. However, shopping industry experts say the number of malls is holding steady and the sector is coping well.

Starting in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1970s, malls became gathering places for teens, convenient shopping centers for their parents and a growing challenge to smaller retailers in cities and towns nationwide.

Collectively, historic mall anchor stores including Macy's, Sears and J.C. Penney are cutting back hundreds of stores. Similarly, one-time electronics giant Radio Shack has shuttered more than 1,000 locations since the Memorial Day weekend as part of a second bankruptcy proceeding in two years.

In part, the closings result from increases in online shopping as traditional brick-and-mortar stores ramp up their own omnichannel strategies that give customers the ability to buy from mobile phones, desktop computers, regular phones or in-person shopping trips.

"The Internet is the enemy of shopping malls," says Mark Cohen, a former Sears Canada CEO who's now the director of retail studies at Columbia Business School in New York City. "Customers are willing to buy everything and anything online."

Discussing what he termed an existential business crisis, Cohen predicted that roughly 230 to 240 U.S. shopping malls "will remain fully viable" when the industry shakeout is complete. In all, the U.S. currently has 1,211 shopping malls, the same as last year and a net increase of 46 from 10 years ago, according to CoStar Group data provided by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Credit Suisse's report forecast a similarly bleak and even faster outcome, based in part on sales projections for the apparel industry, a traditional mainstay for U.S. shopping malls. E-commerce apparel sales are likely to soar from roughly 17% of overall transactions now to approximately 35.7% within 15 years, said Christian Buss, a Credit Suisse director, apparel analyst, and the lead author of the mall forecast.

Simultaneously, off-price and fast-fashion retail are growing from approximately 20% of apparel industry sales now to what the report projects as 30% in approximately a decade. Stores specializing in those areas, such as TJ Maxx, are disproportionately located away from malls, Buss said.

Consumer shopping habits are also changing. Now, consumers increasingly, forgo regular trips to an area mall in favor of less frequent trips to what Buss termed destination, A-center locations that feature improved shopping experiences.

"The logic of convenience that defined the creation of the mall in the 70s and 80s and 90s has been replaced by the convenience of sitting at home and ordering from your laptop or your iPad," said Buss. "What this means is that you no longer have to drive within a 5- or 10-mile radius to go to a mall that may be tired and sad, and half empty. You'll drive further when you do choose to go to the mall, which will be less frequently, into those A-center locations."

However, the mall industry remains confident the sector will continue to thrive despite financial challenges and changing consumer shopping habits.

"We found the opinion report amusing and inaccurate," Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall operator, said in response to the Credit Suisse forecast.

 

The company, which boasts retail properties in 37 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, reported in April that its first-quarter mall and premium outlets occupancy was 95.6%, unchanged from last year. "We continue to see strong demand for our space," company Chairman and CEO David Simon told Wall Street analysts, adding that "leasing activity remains solid."

A significant percentage of U.S. malls are likely to close, but those that do are likely to be locations with comparatively lower sales per square foot, said Kevin Berry, the chief spokesman for General Growth Properties, which operates 117 malls. But Berry questioned whether the shutdowns would occur as quickly as forecast by Credit Suisse.

"There is no statistical evidence to suggest that a 20% to 25% (shutdown of U.S. malls) is an accurate forecast of what's going to happen in this industry," ICSC President and CEO Tom McGee said in an interview.

A Fitch Ratings report issued this week took a balanced position on retail Real Estate Investment Trusts, the entities that typically own malls. The report said the increase of e-commerce gas prompted some retailers to gradually reduce their imprint across the U.S. Lack of rent income growth will also be "especially problematic" for Class B malls and outlying retail centers as they lose tenants.

Nonetheless, Fitch took a neutral position on the sector.

"Approximately 70% of retail sales will still be made in a physical store in 2020, compared with around 80% today," said Fitch Managing Director Steven Marks. "Consumers by and large still enjoy shopping as a leisure activity, plus a significant portion of online sales are connected with a store visit."

Separately, McGee cited dramatic changes in what many U.S. malls now offer consumers as older Americans move into retirement and succeeding generations increase their buying power. When malls lose retail stores, they shift some of the newly vacant space to eateries and entertainment offerings, McGee said.

"You have a retired baby boomer generation that's spending a lot more on food, entertainment, hospitality, et cetera," said McGee. You have a younger Millennial generation that's doing the very same thing. and so the mall industry ... is meeting the needs of those very large demographic groups and what they want."

At least in part, federal labor data appears to offer support for the shift. Retail industry jobs fell nearly 1% in January, and declined between 0.23% and 0.38% during the months since, according to seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor. At the same time, BLS data show monthly 2017 job gains of 2.17% and 2.29% in food services and at drinking places.

"I think there are some very positive trends that are happening in the industry while recognizing that there are some significant changes that are impacting the industry," said McGee.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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