Retail Traffic

Don't Get Carried Away

The mood at this year's ICSC RECon promises to be a lot better than last year's — and not just because the trade association finally relented to member requests to shorten the whole shebang by a day.

No, the optimism I'm talking about stems from retail REIT stock prices flying high, from industry fundamentals stabilizing and from consumer spending coming back in a big way.

The last one is the biggie since we know that without the consumer, the whole retail real estate thing doesn't exactly work.

March's Easter-driven spending binge was one for the record books. Weak comparisons, along with pent-up demand, helped contribute to the results, which saw retailers post a 9.0 percent gain over a year ago. It was the highest year-over-year gain in same-store sales in a decade. March's results were not the first sign of success either. In fact, ICSC has record same-store sales gains in six of the last seven months.

Alongside the sales numbers we've seen a deceleration in store closings and bankruptcy announcements from retailers. In fact, we're starting to hear more merchants talking about increasing the pace of expansions and a few have even birthed new concepts. In addition, some landlords have gotten into the game as well, by launching “incubator” programs aimed at fostering the development of local retailers in markets across the country. (See our feature on those efforts on p. 80.)

Yet is all this optimism about consumer spending premature? Sadly, yes.

For one thing, it's critical to keep in mind that the same-store sales numbers do not mean quite as much as they once did. The number of retailers that report this metric is down to the low 30s — half as many as reported as recently as a few years ago. For example, the same-store sales metric no longer includes Walmart. So it's difficult to put too much stock in a figure that doesn't take into account what is by far the largest retailer in the country.

In addition, there's a “survivor bias” to those figures that few talk about. Consider Best Buy. Is it any wonder that the electronics chain is doing well when you remember that its biggest competitor Circuit City vanished as a result of the recession?

Most importantly, there's just not enough there to support a robust consumer market. Our feature story, which starts on p. 50, explains why this is the case.

Among other things, although the recession may have ended months ago, we have yet to see much of a dent being made in the massive sea of unemployment that the Great Recession created. More than 8 million jobs were destroyed. It will take a pace of job growth many times what we have seen so far for the unemployment rate to shift.

Consumer credit is simply not as available as it once was. And housing — which arguably was the biggest catalyst for retail spending during the boom years — shows no signs of truly recovering. In fact, there may be more foreclosures in 2010 than in 2009 or 2008.

In addition, many experts point out that the pace of consumer spending we saw in 2006 and 2007 was not sustainable and driven by the housing bubble and other dynamics. Even when things improve, we should not expect to see a rerun of those conditions.

In the end, while things are brighter than they once were, we're far from being out of the woods.

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