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Will Sears move out of malls?

Mall owners may have several more vacant anchor spaces to fill if Sears proceeds with plans to move out of shopping centers and into freestanding buildings. At an analyst conference last week, Sears CEO Alan Lacy indicated the retailer's long-term strategy is to get its smaller stores out of malls and into super-sized, stand-alone buildings. According to Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Sakwa, who attended the conference, Lacy said that between 200 and 300 Sears stores could either exit their existing mall anchor pads or expand inside malls that have vacant space to spare.

The push is part of the implementation of Sears' new Sears Grand concept -- a 150,000-square-foot to 200,000-square-foot freestanding store that will offer more selling space than existing Sears stores, most of which are located in malls and have a 60 percent selling-space-to-gross-space ratio. The Sears Grand merchandising scheme will compete with that of the supercenters that have grabbed the retailer's market share in the past decade. Products such as DVDs, gardening goods and groceries will join the traditional Sears offering at the new concept. The first Sears Grand will open next month in Salt Lake City.

Though Sears hasn't revealed its plans for a nationwide Sears Grand rollout, Sakwa says the retailer's smaller, less-productive stores are the most vulnerable to closing and relocation. Of the public mall REITs, CBL & Associates would be most impacted. Sears anchors 91 percent of the malls in its portfolio. Sears anchors 78 percent of the malls in General Growth Properties' portfolio, 76 percent of Simon Property Group's malls and 66 percent of The Macerich Co.'s malls.

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