Retail has been the commercial real estate chameleon, changing and adapting with the times, including the rise of e-commerce and COVID-19. The post-pandemic rebirth of the sector has made major headlines and many retail operators and owners see flying colors.
Michael Fitzgerald, executive director and head of US retail investments at W. P. Carey, sees three major trends that sector stakeholders should be watching: the strength of needs-based retail, a development switch favoring sale-leaseback investors and the continued recalibration of buyer-seller expectations.
Targets & Tactics
“An interesting thing about COVID was how resilient certain areas of retail actually were,” said Fitzgerald. “We saw immediate and sustained growth after that short period of shutdowns.”
Non-discretionary, core-good retail including grocery stores and services-based tenants, such as auto services, have been “very strong,” according to Fitzgerald. Low-cost discount stores are a good place to do deals given the economic worries. And family entertainment centers, such as arcades and bowling alleys with full-service restaurants, have seen sustained periods of same-store sales growth and high profitability, benefitting from the post-COVID pent-up consumer demand.
“When you’re very flexible, have tons of ability to evaluate business models, take a partnership approach and meet with management teams to understand how they position themselves in the market, you’ll have a lot of good investment options,” said Fitzgerald, who prefers master leases of 15- to 25-year term with escalations every five years. “We can do anything from convenience stores to an automotive service business to grocery and sporting goods. We’re pretty agnostic as to the types of retail we pursue.”
As the impact of rising interest rates continues to unfold, Fitzgerald has found that most tenants and retailers are somewhat hesitant to raise their prices so as not to alienate or even “destroy” their customer base. There’s an opportunity to boost profitability, but also a concern about the outcome if companies go down that path and then the economic “switch flips” and customers stop spending.
Increased interest rates affect retail development negatively, but Fitzgerald believes a specific shift in that regard that could yield investment opportunity. Retailers planning to grow their footprint have traditionally partnered with merchant developers, but with higher capital costs the latter’s return requirements “have increased significantly” and, in turn, their hiked asking rents have forced retailers to look for alternatives. As a result, retailers are doing more of their own development, whether in-house or through fee developers.
“So a lot of these developments will be held on the balance sheet of retail companies, which is good because a lot of companies will likely decide to do sale-leasebacks,” he said. “Given that’s our company’s prime target, we think that’s a good trend to come from the higher rates.”
Fitzgerald maintains that it’s still too early to make a prediction for overall transaction volume in the retail sector in 2023, adding that since last fall cap rate expectations have gone up 45 to 50 basis points in many cases. “What we’re seeing is that retailers that need to grow their footprint and monetize new developments are going to meet the market and are going to do deals,” he said. “If retailers continue to meet the market I think it’ll be a good, active year. If there’s a standoff I think it’s going to be more difficult.”