Retail rents: Who's paying the most?

For retailers, it's no longer as easy as giving the rubber stamp when a store's lease comes up for renewal. Instead, as they look to prune their fleets to boost their overall productivity, companies are analyzing their physical footprints more than ever.

So in an age when they can shutter underperforming stores in favor of less costly Web operations, which retailers are getting the most out of their bricks-and-mortar shops?

Target
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Using its own estimates and company filings, Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen broke down which retailers are paying the most rent per square foot, as well as which rake in the most sales per square foot.

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According to Chen, luxury and accessible luxury retailers tend to lead the pack in terms of sales productivity, given the high price tags on their merchandise. However, these stores are often located on high-end streets or in the top-performing malls, a factor that contributes to higher rent costs per square foot.

By comparison, Chen said, retailers with store bases outside of the mall "are likely to benefit from lower rent," which can counterbalance their lesser sales density.

When factoring together each retailers' rent expenses as a percentage of sales, Chen found that big box stores Costco, Target and Wal-Mart led the list. They were followed by department stores Macy's, Nordstrom, Kohl's and Hudson's Bay.

Read MoreThese retailers get the most 'bang for the buck'

At the other end of the spectrum, the companies that pay the most rent as a percentage of sales include specialty stores Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap and American Eagle, as well as accessories dealers Kate Spade and Michael Kors.

"Rent expense as a percentage of sales tends to decline as stores become more productive," Chen wrote. "Conversely, retailers with low store productivity measured by sales per [square foot] tend to have a higher rent expense as percentage of sales."

Chen pointed out that off-price retailers including TJ Maxx and Ross are exceptions to this trend, as they're typically located in strip centers, "which tend to have the lowest rent structures."

Earlier this year, Jefferies analyst Randal Konik ranked the retailers in his coverage universe—which includes specialty stores and off-price retailers—based on the amount they earn in sales per square foot versus what they pay in rent per square foot.

According to his results, Ross and TJX topped the list.

To see the results from Konik's study, click here.