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Are “food halls” an answer for mall vacancies?

One of the biggest issues confronting mall developers is how to fill empty space (especially from vacant anchors). There just aren’t enough brick-and-mortar retailers to fill that space without coming up with some original ideas. One recent discussion on RetailWire focuses on the concept of “food halls” as a possible answer:

Anybody who has traveled the world (and has visited department stores in the process) can’t help but be dazzled by the food halls, especially in Europe but also in Asia and elsewhere. I realize that this is an extension of “high street” shopping in densely populated central business districts, so it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the American department store model. And yet…wouldn’t a food hall (in the European sense) be more compelling than a Backstage installation in a Macy’s store?

The growth in self-contained food halls inside malls (but not necessarily inside a department store) is healthy for several reasons — and not just as a placeholder for another anchor tenant. It capitalizes on shoppers’ growing interest in cooking, healthy eating, locavore dining, etc. — and it provides an opportunity for retailers like Whole Foods/365 or Trader Joe’s to expand their footprint. Besides, if you’re waiting for one department store to fill the anchor space of another…you’re going to have a long wait.

Case in point (from another recent post):

“Signs of the apocalypse” are rampant in some segments, such as traditional mall anchors, but overstated in other high-growth areas like off-pricers. As regional malls suffer one tenant loss after another, it’s hard to see how all of those giant locations are going to be filled — especially if the anchors were in B and C malls to begin with.

One example, in my home market of Milwaukee, is the exit of Sears (three locations) followed by last week’s announced liquidation of Bon-Ton Stores. Boston Store (the local Bon-Ton nameplate) had five locations here — including two stores with over 200,000 square feet. If you’re a mall developer losing two of three anchors, it’s easy to feel like you have a black cloud hanging over your head.

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Backstage a short-term win for Macy’s

As the topic of this post suggests, I am a skeptic about whether a store-in-store location strategy for Backstage really makes sense for Macy’s. Here’s my recent comment from RetailWire:

It’s hard to argue with the sales lift that Backstage has brought to the first group of stores, but I have my doubts the long-term strategic impact. From the local Macy’s store with a Backstage installation, I see a messy collection of “stuff” that doesn’t even meet the housekeeping standards of my local Marshall’s — not to mention the standards of the rest of the Macy’s store. And the off-price space is getting very crowded, at the risk of oversaturation.

It would be worth knowing more before passing judgment: Is the sales increase driving any kind of gains in Macy’s “upstairs” departments? And what kind of product is selling in Backstage? Again, from my observation, the “upstairs” brands at Macy’s have no interest in selling their labels inside Backstage, so the brands I shopped could just as easily be found at a Kohl’s or JCPenney store.

Is Aldi moving “uptown” too fast?

Here’s a recent comment from RetailWire about Aldi, and its decision to open more stores in upscale suburbs and neighborhoods. I think it’s a smart idea:

Many of the original Aldi locations (at least here in the Milwaukee area) were in lower income neighborhoods often suffering from “food desert” syndrome. The stores filled an important niche, but eventually Aldi started growing into middle-income and more upscale suburbs here. I’m sure the same phenomenon has happened around the country. If Aldi is serious about upgrading its merchandise content, the store experience has to keep pace.

Again, a local parallel: Pick ‘n Save stores (first part of Roundy’s, now a Kroger division) began as bare-bones stores with food displayed in cut-open shipping cartons stacked on empty gondolas. The formula worked for awhile (Pick ‘n Save became the market share leader here) but eventually customers expected a better experience. The same is true of outlet malls — from “piperack” operations to very upscale today.

So Aldi is making the smart move, especially where the trade-area demographics dictate, as long as they don’t simply duplicate their Trader Joe’s formula.

Is Gen Z uniquely bargain-conscious?

From a couple of recent posts on RetailWire, here are some comments about whether today’s Gen Z shopper entering the consumer landscape is more price-conscious than his/her older sibling, parent or grandparent. My opinion:

Shoppers regardless of age are more price-conscious and value-oriented than ever. Some of this is residue from the Great Recession, and some of this results from the “empowered shopper” with plenty of price data as close as the nearest cell phone.

I wouldn’t describe Gen Z as uniquely price-oriented. I’ve taught a college-level retailing class for ten years, and it’s always a challenge to discuss retailers that the students can’t afford to buy from. (And today’s college students fall right into the Gen Z age profile.) These are mostly students who are working through college while taking on significant debt, so it’s no wonder that they visit TJMaxx instead of Nordstrom. But their spending power will change as they form households and grow their career earnings potential.

And from a later post on the same topic:

I’m not convinced that Gen Z shoppers are any more or less bargain-conscious than their older siblings, parents or grandparents. It’s the world we have lived in for a long time — not just post-recession or with the advent of m-commerce. It’s not by accident that Target, Walmart, Kmart, Kohl’s and others opened their doors in 1962 because it signaled a “search for value” that hasn’t let up.

I’m more focused on the two items on the list that will affect stores’ real estate strategies for years to come. If Gen Z shoppers are both mall-agnostic and commute-averse, this will benefit neighborhood retailers — or at least those retailers willing to rethink their traditional approaches to site selection. And, of course, it benefits e-commerce retailers like Amazon who bring a different meaning to “localization.”

End of the line for Toys “R” Us?

Big retail news of the day (as discussed at RetailWire) is the announcement that Toys “R” Us is throwing in the towel. Here’s my post-mortem:

It’s unlikely that Toys “R” Us is going to stay afloat, and this is a big deal for those who follow the recent history of retailing. They were among the first “category killer” stores with broad assortments of a single category in a big-box format. There have been others (Linens ‘N Things, Sports Authority, etc.) but this one stands out. If you see reporting on “the Amazon effect,” it’s more complicated than that.:

It’s tough to survive in a highly seasonal business like toys given the growth of e-commerce and the dominance of discounters in the same category. And there has been a generational change, where many of today’s kids are interacting with technology (smartphone apps, streaming video games) instead of the toys of a short time ago.

And one more lesson learned: A mountain of private-equity debt doesn’t help. On this point, an added thought from a more recent RetailWire discussion:

TRU was partly the victim of private-equity debt burdens, but also made its own mistakes. This is an example of a big box store with too much square footage — in a seasonal business facing robust competition from discounters and Amazon — failing to adapt.

There is probably enough brand equity remaining to salvage the business, provided that Storch and team rethink the model. (And get rid of that debt load.) Maybe an online-only play is the place to start, instead of trying to recapture the past.

Department stores expand off-price concepts

Macy’s reported in its year-end earnings call that it plans to expand its Backstage off-price concept to 100 more stores this year. (And Backstage is located inside existing Macy’s locations.) Here’s what I had to say on RetailWire about the wisdom of this trend:

There is a big difference between what Nordstrom and Kohl’s are doing (building out freestanding Rack and Off/Aisle stores) and what Macy’s is attempting by locating its Backstage concept inside its full-line stores. Either way, department stores are jumping on the off-price bandwagon because it’s a hot segment with the “treasure hunt” experience that some shoppers are looking for. But at what point does the segment get overcrowded?

Macy’s may feel strongly enough about Backstage to roll it into more locations, but from my experience it does nothing to enhance the overall store “brand.” (Bob is dead-on regarding the housekeeping.) And the merchandise content is not compelling, since Macy’s “upstairs” brands feel safer dealing with TJX than having their goods show up in Backstage. From what I’ve observed, there is a lot of closeout product from brands that you might find at JCP or Kohl’s but not on the main floor of Macy’s.

Who’s next for cashier-less checkout?

RetailWire panelists speculated recently about how long it will take for the Amazon Go experiment to be adopted by other retailers. Here’s my brief take on the issue:

Some stores will never be suited for a cashier-less system (most obviously, retailers like Nordstrom) but it has application to plenty of other stores. It’s a question of scale and how long it will take for enough early adapters to drive the cost of these systems down for everybody else. Think about the evolution of RFID: It’s been hailed as the next big thing in inventory management but has taken seemingly forever for even big national chains to adopt the technology. I don’t expect this to be any different given the short-term capital expense involved.


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