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You always remember your first Vegas. The International Council of Shopping Center's (ICSC) Spring Convention in Las Vegas is just one of those kinds of events that sticks with you.

Mine was in 1996. As the editor of our sister magazine National Real Estate Investor, it was a can't-miss opportunity to meet every major retail player under one roof for a change.

In a short article I wrote for Shopping Center World, I talked about how malls were anything but dinosaurs, what with all the attention lavished on the Simon, DeBartolo, General Growth and CBL “stores.” “These guys know how to generate excitement, and the Simon/DeBartolo merger did not help to deflect attention from the mall sector, either,” I wrote.

With the “let's-go-public-while-the-going-is-good” mania of the late-1990s (basically 1997 on), real estate investment trusts were soon to become the rage. The era spawned mall and other retail REITs that controlled some of the largest property portfolios in the country, including Simon Property Group, which became the biggest mall owner after its 1996 merger.

Ah, but I also spoke of the darker cloud that was then generally hovering over the retail sector — overbuilding. “Lest I paint too gleeful a picture, to be sure all is not wine and roses in retail-land. There is some major cause for concern anytime such optimism gets out of hand. Out there in the real world, a drive around any major metropolitan area quickly gives one the sense that there really is too much retail and, in general, we are overstored. But as usual, and real estate cycles being what they are, demand catches up with supply eventually.”

Sound familiar? Yes, at least six years ago, there was concern about overbuilding. The same is true today, only it's a lot more obvious.

“So, the bottom line on ICSC?” I asked back then. “Was it all just pretty facades and brave talk, hiding the reality of the gloom and doom to come? I don't think so, especially in light of the huge recent successes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci and a bevy of retailers that have just gone public. Only time will tell, but I know I will be back next year.”

And I did go back. Again and again and… here we go again. And I'm guessing that this year, a chief discussion point will be Wal-Mart. Love them or not, they're the biggest game in town (well, most towns anyway).

“The first thought I have about Wal-Mart is you don't want to fight them,” said Glenn Rufrano, CEO of New Plan Excel Realty on a recent National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts conference call. “If you can make them your friend that's a good thing.”

Wal-Mart is suddenly the No. 1 grocer in America. So what does that mean to all the popular grocery-anchored centers in the land, for example? Instant extinction?

Whether Wal-Mart one day owns the world (or at least every consuming man, woman and child in it) remains to be seen. Retailing is such a cyclical business, and to date the company has made more right moves than wrong ones. But who predicted the severe economic downturn of 2000-2001? Or the downfall of telecom and the dot-coms? Or Kmart? What will tomorrow bring? If past form holds true, chances are the ICSC convention will give us at least a glimpse of an answer.

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