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May 24, 2011
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US shopping center, malls stage slow comeback

May 24, 2011

May 24 - U.S. retail real estate --largely the malls and shopping centers that were slammed by the recession -- have stabilized, but a recovery is likely to be slow and uneven across the country, real estate experts said.

Dolphin Mall, luxury shopping centre owned by Taubman Centers

"Overall, the leasing environment has not only stabilized, it has begun to improve," John Bemis, executive vice president, director of leasing for Jones Lang LaSalle Inc, said.

Bemis spoke on the first day of the International Council of Shopping Center's annual convention in Las Vegas, where real estate owners, their bankers and tenants, met to discuss next year's leasing prospects and beyond.

Attendance also reflected the sluggish retail recovery, with 29,600 registered to attend this year, with about 3,000 to 4,000 expected to sign up at the last minute. Last year, 28,700 people attended, according to ICSC.

During the boom times of 2006 and 2007, attendance met or exceeded 50,000.

"Malls have performed very well, and I think we're going to see a steady climb," Bemis said. "It's not going to be a steep exit like we saw in 2001."

Retail real estate is driven by consumers who are still wrestling with high unemployment, decreasing home values and rising gasoline prices.

High-end consumers are fueling luxury retailers. Taubman Centers, which operates mostly U.S. luxury malls, saw sales at its 26 malls jump 14.3 percent in the first quarter at stores that have been opened for more than a year.

On the opposite end, outlet centers, whose stores offer lower priced items, have become the sweetheart of the retail real estate sector. They have helped boost results for big mall owners like Simon Property Group, which owns 74 outlet centers internationally, according to Green Street Advisors, an independent real estate investment trust research firm.

But shopping centers with stores that cater to the middle of the spectrum consumer are lagging.

Still, leasing is up about 50 percent over last year, said Anthony Buono, CB Richard Ellis Group Inc executive managing director, Retail Services.

"The unevenness creates a question around the whole recovery," he said.

Retail mirrors local economies. That means in the markets where economic growth has gained traction, such as New York, Houston, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles and their surrounding areas, shopping centers there are starting to gain power to raise rents.

In Manhattan's Times Square, retail rents now exceed levels reached before the recession, Buono said.

Other markets with shopping centers are still working to raise or stabilize occupancy, which is needed before they can raise rents.

The slow recovery has allowed some retailers to take advantage of the good real estate spots where their stores are located.

Disney Stores, a unit of Walt Disney Co, has scaled down not only the size but the number of stores it operates and has its eye on certain locations within malls and shopping centers. Its strategy is to have 220 stores nationwide, down from a plan for about 500 ten years ago, said Paul Gainer, Disney senior vice president of retail.

"We're looking for the 50-yard line location," Gainer said, referring to the middle of the mall or shopping center. "For all specialty retailers, that has been more critical ... not only that we're in the right mall, but for us to be in the right location where mom is shopping."

Disney looks for "A" and "B" malls, with A being a class that generates the most money and traffic per square foot. "B" malls are those that come in second in a market, or more often, generate lower sales per square foot.

Disney Stores also has jazzed up its stores, making them more like a dream play area. Kids use technology to interact with Disney characters and themes from Disney movies. The company plans to add 40 such stores in 2011.

Not only have malls begun to get their footing, Big Box shopping centers which had past anchors like Circuit City and other defunct retailers, now have their spaces filled with the likes of discount and lower-end stores such as Kohls S Corp's Kohl's stores, TJX Companies Inc's T.J. Maxx and Big Lots, Buono said.

(Reporting by Ilaina Jonas, editing by Bernard Orr)

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