Amazon has been the catalyst for the retail apocalypse. But it would be a mistake to think the effects of this apocalypse have been even across the market.
To study this, I devoted the last few days to field research. First, I visited Marshalls, then T.J.Maxx, then Ross. These have been the biggest success stories from the demise of brick-and-mortar retail. They follow the time-honored “pile ’em and sell ’em cheap” business model. They don’t invest heavily in online or store displays. However, they almost totally depend on footfall.
That was a problem during the lockdowns, since they had no business. But what I saw over the last few days is encouraging. There were plenty of people shopping. For a Friday afternoon, the parking lots were pretty crowded. They were more than half full.
People are still cautious of each other, and some were behaving furtively. They probably feel guilty about going outside. That’s understandable, but it’s going to be short-lived once people get used to socializing again.
I also visited a couple of outdoor malls. There were a lot of people milling around in the outdoor areas, but fewer were visiting stores. Many stores are ignoring occupancy limits, while others are overzealously enforcing them. That’s a reflection of the spotty adherence to social-distancing suggestions we’re seeing nationally.
Driving home from Palm Springs Sunday evening, there was very heavy traffic on the I-10 freeway west of downtown Los Angeles. I hadn’t sat in traffic in six months. I’m not going to say it was a welcome experience, but it certainly suggests people are more active.
We also went to look at some retail locations in prime Hollywood Walk of Fame locations last week. A seller offered us an excellent location, but the asking rent was pretty much the same as it was before the pandemic. The only other people interested are fast food concepts, and they do not want to begin paying rent for a year.
Right now, it’s a renter’s market in commercial real estate. There’s a lot of speculation that many malls will have to declare bankruptcy. In fact, Amazon is sniffing around, looking at turning some malls into warehouses.
The big question is whether it is wise to start a new retail business today. You’re being forced to take a view on the outlook for the virus.
One thing we do know is that as soon as restrictions ease, people are flooding back to social activities. For example, Orange County, California, opened up last week, and Los Angeles residents quickly filled up any available resort rooms.
Another big question is when will solutions like antibody injections or vaccines be available? If it’s soon, starting a business early would make sense. However, if it’s still far away, you might be stuck with rent payments and no income.
Results from a number of vaccine trials are due as early as October. That’s very encouraging and would also be in plenty of time for the presidential election. Of course, the effect on the election depends on whether the results are positive or not.
We’ve been living with uncertainty for most of this year. It’s easy to think it will last forever, but we’re a lot closer to clarity on the pandemic than people think. The crowds of people craving social interaction and the uptrend in the stock market both point towards the assumption of a benign outcome.
All the best,