- Foreign brands and "e-tailers" like Warby Parker are helping to fill some of the millions of square feet of retail space that went dark last year.
- The decline in occupancy rates at shopping centers and malls that marked 2017 has stabilized this year.
- The retail industry is poised to stage a comeback after several brutal years.
Bon-Ton, Toys R Us, Sears, Claire's and Sam's Club are just a few of the major retailers that have shut hundreds of locations altogether across the U.S. this year, leaving a glut of commercial real estate on the market.
It's allowed the few retailers that are still expanding as well as some "e-tailers" looking to plant some roots take advantage of the empty space and cheaper leases.
The new tenants, filling some of the millions of square feet of retail space that went dark last year, have helped to ease concerns about an uncertain 2018 for shopping center owners. The real estate companies that have reported second-quarter earnings say the decline in occupancy rates that dragged on some results last year has at least stabilized. Simon Property Group, a real estate investment trust that owns some of the most profitable malls and premium outlets in America, went so far as to hike its full-year outlook.
Ross Stores and Ulta Beauty are among the few companies that are looking to open new locations, while Dick's Sporting Goods and the parent company of TJ Maxx are looking to grow offshoots of their brands, like Field & Stream and HomeSense. Digital retailers like Warby Parker and Untuckit are currently searching for their own brick-and-mortar shops. And there has been an uptick in international brands like Uniqlo and Primark looking to expand in the U.S.
"We're actively negotiating deals right now with at least 20 major, national, healthy companies ranging from off-price — like Burlington, Ross, the TJX brands — all the way over to specialty grocers like Lucky's and Sprouts," DDR Corp. CEO David Lukes said on a call with analysts and investors earlier this month. Those are some of the tenants the shopping center REIT was lining up to replace vacated Toys R Us stores. DDR owns more than 200 open-air shopping centers across the U.S. with anchors like Trader Joe's, Bed Bath & Beyond and Five Below.
Kimco, another shopping center REIT that had 22 Toys R Us stores before the retailer went bankrupt in 2017 and closed all of its stores this year, said it has already signed new deals for seven of those spaces, declining to say which companies will be moving in.
"These efforts have produced significant interest from major retailers in off-price, furniture, fitness, specialty grocery, and arts and crafts," Kimco CEO Conor Flynn said last week.
The pace of filling those empty stores is, in fact, accelerating, according to Simon Property Group.
"We are working through the bankruptcies and putting in better retailers," CEO David Simon said on an earnings conference call Monday. "I think retailers were playing defense, and now they are playing a little more offense."
Some mall and shopping center owners are even predicting a rebound in retailers' expansion plans by the end of the year, buoyed by e-commerce brands and international start-ups.
Acadia Realty Trust CEO Ken Bernstein said the discussions with existing tenants are much different this year than last year. Acadia owns urban retail buildings in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.
"In 2017, far too many of our retailers of all different stripes were frozen. So, even if you were willing to lower your rent, there were not worthwhile conversations to be had," Bernstein said on an earnings call with analysts last week. "Fast forward to 2018, and what we're seeing — some of our well-known names are back on offense. They're disciplined about rents, but they are ready to sign leases."
Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods last year and its plans to open more Amazon Go convenience shops gave industry analysts reason to believe there's still value in having brick-and-mortar stores. Companies, however, are being more particular about where they want to expand their footprint: They want the best real estate in high-trafficked areas and typically are signing deals for shorter terms in smaller spaces.
"There are key indicators that help us predict what is going to happen" when it comes to store closures and new stores opening, Greg Maloney, president and CEO of Jones Lang LaSalle's Americas retail division, told CNBC. JLL is a commercial real estate services firm that helps landlords fill vacant spaces and retailers renegotiate their rents.
The retail industry is poised to stage a comeback after several brutal years as more consumers shifted their shopping habits online. Fewer stores are expected to close during the second half of this year. And Maloney said inventory orders for the holidays are up.
"We are looking at the buying patterns of retailers right now and they are buying at record paces," Maloney said. "Right now if it continues at this pace following, it's going to be a great holiday season."
WATCH: Kimco CEO Conor Flynn discusses trends in the retail industry ahead of the holidays