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Exclusive Survey: Readers Sound off on Kmart/Sears Deal

Retail Traffic and National Real Estate Investor readers predict that JCPenney and regional mall operators will be the big losers in Kmart Holding Corp.'s proposed acquisition of Sears, Roebuck & Co. The big winners will be owners of power centers and community centers.

These are some of the findings of an exclusive online survey of a sampling of readers from the two Primedia magazines. The sample was drawn from among the 75,000 subscribers to the two titles. The poll was sent to readers in the days following the Nov. 16 announcement and drew nearly 300 responses.

The respondents, mostly industry executives, see important trends in the deal. A clear majority, 55.1 percent, say that regional malls will be hurt most (compared with 23.5 percent for community centers and 15.6 percent for power centers). Meanwhile, 74.8 percent say that they expect further consolidation in the department store business.

Also, one third of respondents say that the deal is a direct response to Wal-Mart's dominance and the growing power of big-box retailers; 28.2 percent say it's only a response to Wal-Mart; 20.1 percent say it's big boxes. Only 13.3 cite other motivating factors.

The clear loser, according to the poll, will be JCPenney, Sears' historic rival. More than a quarter of respondents (28.2 percent) identify Penney's as the chain that will be hurt most. Next is Sears, itself, at 14.6 percent, Wal-Mart, 12.2 percent, Target, 12.2 percent, Kohl's, 5.8 percent, and Kmart 4.4 percent. But 15 percent say they don't know.

On some questions the jury is decidedly mixed. For example, 38.4 percent of respondents think the merger will reverse the declining fortunes of both Sears and Kmart; 12.2 percent say it will help Kmart only and 5.1 percent say Sears alone will benefit. Meanwhile 25.5 percent of respondents say that the deal will help neither; 18 percent say they were not sure yet who it would help.

Many readers took the opportunity to write in their analysis, including some harsh criticism: "There is no conceivable strategy to turn either around. It is a real estate play put together by a financier, not a retailer," writes one industry executive. Another writes: "I don't think the combined company will last more than two years." Other execs, however, praised the $11 billion deal. One executive writes, "I'm throwing away my crystal ball! Never underestimate the creativity of great merchants at the helm of retail companies with strong brand awareness." Another writes, "The merger appears very timely with Sears' rollout of its off-mall retail stores in certain markets. Kmart's acquisition will provide Sears with a head start in that roll-out vs. how other retailers (like Kohl's) have been expanding."

Observations on the impacts for landlords were also mixed.

"I think this is a real estate transaction for Sears out-of -mall locations to enter into the market at below-market rates, since Kmart wasn't known for its high rent structure," one executive writes. Similarly: "This hurts developers and owners who made acquisition decisions with the hope that below-market rent Kmarts would not exercise their options, thus allowing the owner to backfill that space at market rents," one executive writes.

However, another player thought there would be no impact: "I don't see this merger in any way affecting the real estate market. I think the merger is more about the retail side of the business. They aren't going to be closing any stores so far and they are going to keep the same brand names."

Others saw a silver lining for regional malls: "It may be an opportunity for mall owners to recapture space from Sears for more productive tenants."

Readers were mixed on the deal's meaning for retail real estate values: 35.7 percent say there will be no change, 30.6 percent say it will increase values, 18.7 percent say it will decrease values and 12.9 percent say they don't know. Among readers predicting an increase or decrease, most figure the swing will be less than 5 percent.

Respondents also agreed that the market for excess space disposition would be impacted by the deal, but disagreed by how much. A majority, 55.1 percent, says it will have minimal impact, while 34 percent say the effects will be significant.

The survey drew from a cross-section of the industry; 31 percent said that 75 to 100 percent of their business is retail, 9.5 percent said 50 to 74 percent, 14.3 percent said 25 to 49 percent and 36.1 percent said less than 25 percent. Most respondents said they hold executive positions at their companies: 39.1 percent had titles of owner, partner, president or CEO; 15.6 percent were vice presidents, 12.2 percent were directors, 6.5 percent were principals and 26.5 percent were "other" or didn't answer. A few companies that respondents could be directly impacted by the deal: 11.6 percent said they have properties with Sears as a tenant and 12.9 percent have properties with Kmarts.

A variety of firms were represented in the survey, from developers to retail chains to brokers to architects to lenders. The most prevalent respondents were "developers, builders, owners or managers" who represented 37.1 percent of those surveyed.

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