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Mall owner rebrands itself amid 'retail apocalypse' narrative

  • Mall owner CBL & Associates Properties will be rebranding itself to better fit its strategy in an evolving retail market.
  • CBL, along with many of its peers, has been transforming its real estate into "vibrant town centers," with more lifestyle features.
  • Apparel tenants are being "meaningfully reduced and replaced in REIT-owned malls," according to Boenning & Scattergood analyst Floris van Dijkum.

Malls are changing.

As specialty tenants, like Gymboree and Wet Seal, file for bankruptcy, and as department store chains, like Sears and J.C. Penney, scale back their physical footprints, those real estate landlords are left with boxes to fill and room for innovation.

Like its peers, CBL & Associates Properties, a Tennessee-based retail real estate investment trust, has been fighting the idea that malls are "dying."

To be sure, malls have been the worst REIT performers year to date, "as investors have latched onto the negative retail narrative," Boenning & Scattergood analyst Floris van Dijkum wrote in a recent note to clients.

Hedge funds have wagered $6.7 billion, betting against the mall sector, with short interest at a five-year high of 7.6 percent, Dijkum said. "Bears believe cash flows and asset values will be pressured for all retail real estate."

On Thursday, CBL announced that it will be rebranding itself to better fit its strategy in an evolving retail market. The company's full name, CBL & Associates Properties, will be cut to CBL Properties. It's also debuted a new website, and will use updated "communications tools and messaging" to reach investors.

"Our properties are not just about retail or shopping — they serve as gathering places for their respective communities," said CEO Stephen Lebovitz in prepared remarks.

"They are evolving through the addition of more food, entertainment, service, fitness and other new uses and we are actively exploring adding hotels, medical, office, residential and education components," he added.

Lebovitz told analysts earlier this year that CBL has been transforming its real estate into "vibrant town centers." And it's true — more restaurants, grocery stores, gyms and movie cinemas are popping up in malls across America.

At the same time, Boenning & Scattergood's Dijkum pointed out that apparel tenants — which have struggled more than other retail subsets to grow sales — are being "meaningfully reduced and replaced in REIT-owned malls."

His firm estimated that apparel exposure has dropped to 50 percent from 70 percent of mall in-line space over the last eight years. Meantime, "food and entertainment" tenants now take up 10 percent of mall space, up from 5 percent.

General Growth Properties, an Illinois-based mall landlord, is focused on turning some of its mall properties into "mixed-use" developments, even adding residential options, like an apartment complex, atop excess parking lot space. GGP is also working with Germany-based supermarket chain Lidl — a new entrant to the U.S. grocery market — to open Lidl stores at some of GGP's properties.

Pennsylvania REIT's CEO, Joseph Coradino, recently told CNBC's "Mad Money" that his mall properties are "detoxing," and adding experiential stores.

It's going to take some heavy lifting for retail REITs to convince the Street that there's still life to their properties. CBL hopes its rebrand is a start.

"As technology continues to drive change, CBL must not only adjust its operations to compete and grow market share, but also connect more directly with consumers and other partners," added Lebovitz.

Shares of CBL have fallen more than 25 percent in 2017. GGP's stock is down about 13 percent over the same period, while Simon Property Group, another mall owner, has watched its shares drop more than 8 percent.

Shares of two other peers, Macerich and Washington Prime Group, are both down nearly 20 percent.

"If these [apparel] tenants all go dark at once, it could create a glut of space that mall owners would have to re-tenant," Dijkum said. "However, most malls owners have minimal rental exposure to these tenants."

The obstacle remains convincing Wall Street that a transformation in the mall REIT sector will prove successful.

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