The bears are out in force again, this time predicting the demise of bricks and mortar retail centres due largely to the forecast impact of online retailer Amazon. How's this for an example: "We think the magnitude of this short could be bigger than subprime," says Stephen Ketchum, the head of Sound Point Capital, a US hedge fund that manages more than $13bn in assets. That was from a story run in the AFR (17 July).
The US retail property market has been affected both by overbuilding and the accelerating impact of online. But to suggest the same impacts in Australia might be taking things too far.
There's one very telling difference between ourselves and most US markets: overbuilding here is virtually impossible due to the "blue dot" factor. What's the blue dot? For decades, planning schemes have enshrined restrictive land uses through rigid zoning laws. In the case of retail centres, these extended to creating a legislated "retail hierarchy" of centres with various overlaps of trade areas (based mostly but not exclusively on centre size and nature of retail offer). The hierarchy, happily supported by shopping centre owners and major retail tenants, had to be protected to avoid overbuilding or encroachment of retail uses into residential areas (so the official line went). This meant that prospects of developing a competing retail centre within the trade area of an existing centre, were very limited if not impossible.
This also led to the delicious irony of the generally pro-free enterprise shopping centre and major retail industry campaigning for more competition when it suited them (less restrictive trading hours, for example) but opposing competition when it didn't (objecting to any new retail centres and frequently even objecting to tenancy changes or extensions in competing centres). The anti-competitive nature of our retail planning was wryly observed by retailer Gerry Harvey as posing a significant barrier to entry for the likes of Amazon. According to Harvey, quoted in Fairfax media: "Let's assume I buy a block of land tomorrow. I've got to buy it, pay for it, put in a development application. If that happens within three years, that's very quick… And I read that Amazon is going to be fully operational in late 2018."
Amazon will need more than one major distribution centre to service Australia. Finding the sites and getting the approvals will not be as easy as it might in the US. Plus, we have a particular tyranny of distance which any online retailer must confront when it comes to delivery: as customers, we are more spread out than in major US population centres.
The same hurdles faced the arrival of other retail competitors like Aldi and Costco. Both faced difficulties in finding enough sites to build a viable network – Aldi is getting there but Costco has a way to go. Both faced legal and planning objections from those invested in existing "blue dots" who did not want more blue dots on their trade area maps.
The downside of this has been that some parts of Australia's retail property sector are vulnerable to competition not mostly because of online retailers like Amazon, but due to the lack of competition which has encouraged a laziness towards the asset. Many centres (too many to name) are little changed from their original design which could be 30 years old: a big box containing a supermarket, supported with a mix of specialty stores and a large on-grade (rarely shaded) car park. The enshrined lack of competition, described as a virtue of the planning system, has shielded these assets from the need to remain competitive and denied consumers access to a higher quality retail offer in the process.
The opportunity to anticipate some fairly obvious changes in consumer appetites and redesign these centres seems, to date, to have been largely overlooked. Leading centres are ahead of the curve, reinventing themselves as food, entertainment and community centres while other retail centres languish. The leading centres that are getting prepared for the future are typically held in institutional hands or in REIT structures so it's ironic that these are the funds being shorted. But the opportunities for the sector as a whole are significant, irrespective of private or institutional ownership. Health and social welfare will be the fastest growing industry by employment by a country mile in coming decades. Education is not far behind. A suburbanizing economy, enabled by advances in digital technology, means workplaces closer to home will become much more feasible. The advent of driverless cars (probably some time off) also has the potential to liberate a lot of on grade carparking from occasional to more permanent use (for something else besides a carpark).
These and other factors present a host of mixed use offers that many shopping centres are well suited for. Nestled in amongst established urban communities with usually good transport connections, the opportunity is there to transition the land use from a purely retail use to one that combines retail with office, professional and medical suites, training and education facilities, health and wellness centres, short term accommodation, retirement living, and community uses.
But first, the planning system has to allow it and centre owners need to want it. In the meantime, no doubt market analysts who don't appreciate the significance of our "blue dots" and our various other barriers to entry will exaggerate the short term impact of Amazon, while the real problem – outmoded design and strategy – poses greater long term risks (or opportunities for those smart enough to identify them).
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