Posting a year-over-year increase in transaction volumes, it appears the consecutive decline in retail real estate trades has turned the corner. After surviving a few years of negative headlines and threats of the much-hyped “retail apocalypse,” the story has largely shifted, as accumulated capital to acquire assets is actively deploying.
An abundance of capital continues to target retail assets in Denver, and, with limited opportunities, we are seeing that capital become more flexible and aggressive for the right deal. For example, Colorado Springs has become a viable market for some investors that may not have considered it five years ago. In our discussions with capital sources both locally and nationally, we hear consistent sentiments and trends across the sector that are worth noting.
Retail occupancy levels in Metro Denver continue to be healthy with an average of 95.8 percent across all retail asset types. That level is 93.8 percent across the top to markets nationally. While big-box stores do become available when tenants vacate, the overall health of the market remains strong. Retailers such as Hobby Lobby, Burlington, Old Navy and Planet Fitness continue to backfill large vacancies in the market.
Rents continue to show growth, and Denver is no exception. Denver saw rates grow roughly five percent in 2018. Large-format retailers and grocery stores can negotiate some reductions in exchange for more favorable terms, but smaller shop tenants who renew their terms are generally accepting options as stated in their leases. Investors acquiring large-format centers are writing down rents in these scenarios, which is in response to the reality of these negotiations.
Many retailers have posted strong earnings reports and improved profit margins over the course of 2018. Leading the way is Amazon with third quarter 2018 sales amounting to $56.6 billion. Equally important categories include discount retailers, home improvement and the continued expansion of the fitness space. While 90 percent of retail sales still occur in physical stores, it is hard to deny the effect of e-commence with sales growing 15.2 percent in 2018. Both traditional and on-line retailers are working to capitalize on omnichannel approaches to reach the entire customer base. Landlords are finding newer, smarter and more creative retailers to create energy in their retail centers.
The most notable part of the transformation of the retail industry is the slowdown of new construction and the corresponding reduction of retail space. The number of retail buildings nationally decreased 1.04 percent in the third quarter of 2018 and 7.88 percent year over year from 2017. This reflects the way many retailers are adjusting their total footprint to fit the new market. Lately, Denver ranked as having the largest decrease in retail square footage per capita among 20 of the largest U.S. metros with a decrease of roughly 2.7 million square feet. This helps explain why only 1.1 percent of Denver’s total retail square footage is new inventory. Between 2017 and 2018, Denver saw an average of 2.5 million square feet of new retail inventory (the 35-year average is 3.6 million square feet). This compares to 225 million of existing retail square feet across Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.
The reduction in sales volume experienced over the past few years may be turning around as year-over-year transaction volume was up 31 percent from the third quarter of 2017. This demonstrates an implied optimism in ownership arising from the “wait and see” strategy that settled into the market in 2017. Last year also saw an increase in activity from private investors with smaller transactions. Core assets continue to be most desirable, pricing aggressively as investors target well-positioned, credit real estate in top tier locations. Among these, grocery-anchored product is still the most desirable, particularly with best-in-class brand named grocers. Investors are underwriting opportunities to either core or value-add returns, with little appetite for core-plus returns on retail assets.
Although cycle timing is making it increasingly more difficult, the desire for value-add assets is likely to persist. Investors recognize the opportunities that exist with value-add real estate and continue to chase markets with strong tenant history. An abundance of equity has been raised in the pursuit of retail assets in desirable markets. Capital is not the issue but rather finding those opportunities to deploy capital into retail assets is the challenge.
Lender underwriting for retail real estate has become more conservative with a keen look at tenancy. Money moving into the system has a higher cost of capital due to cautious lending on retail assets. However, the debt reserves are extremely high, and, on an historical basis, debt remains decidedly favorable. Debt will continue to create value in retail assets with a history of performance and a strong tenant outlook.
With national sales transaction volume increasing for retail assets, coupled with Denver’s continued growth and strong fundamentals, we are poised for another active year in the retail sector.
Jason Schmidt is a managing director with more than 20 years of experience in the commercial real estate industry. He focuses on both retail and office investment advisory transactions in Denver and the Rocky Mountain region and co-leads HFF Denver’s office private client/middle market investment advisory team. Throughout his career, he has closed more than $1 billion in transactions for a variety of institutional investors and REITs, including AEW, Blackstone, Evergreen Devco, Inc., Franklin Street, Piedmont Realty Trust, Weingarten Realty and Westwood Financial.
Mr. Schmidt joined the firm in January 2019 from JLL’s Capital Markets Group, where he was an executive vice president responsible for the disposition of office, retail and industrial buildings in the region. He has a wide range of experience in the industry and has held positions at Signature Equities, Pace Properties, Cushman Wakefield and Cassidy Turley. Mr. Schmidt has been recognized as a “Heavy Hitter” by the Denver Business Journal and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Business Administration from Drake University as well as a Master of Real Estate and Construction Management from the University of Denver.
Chad Murray is a director in the Denver office of HFF with more than 14 years of experience in commercial real estate and finance. He focuses primarily on retail investment advisory transactions throughout Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. Since joining HFF, Mr. Murray has participated in more than $1.25 billion in investment advisory, debt and equity transactions.
Mr. Murray joined the firm in July 2013 from the General Services Administration (GSA), where he managed leasing activities for the GSA throughout Colorado. Prior to the GSA, he worked at a boutique Denver firm capitalizing commercial real estate transactions throughout Colorado.
Originally published in Colorado Real Estate Journal.