As we enter 2009, the one good thing we can say is, at least 2008 is over! If you are a retail tenant and survived 2008, congratulations. You’ve made it through one of the toughest years in recent history. Not everyone has been so fortunate. It’s been well publicized that a number of national retailers have gone out of business. The road is littered by the likes of Linen’s and Things, Mervyn’s, Shoe Pavilion, Comp USA, and Circuit City. More recently, Gottschalk’s filed for bankruptcy and I’m sure as the year progresses, more may join this unfortunate group.
In the Reno Sparks Market, we have been hit with the closure of all of the tenants mentioned above, not to mention the numerous local shops that have closed. We had a very interesting occurrence last year in that the area’s Gross Absorption, which is a measure of the total number of deals that occurred, was tied for second highest in more than 18 years of our keeping record. In fact, there was 947,000 square feet of new occupied space last year. Now the interesting part: Net Absorption, which is the square footage of all new deals minus the square footage of spaces being vacated, was actually a negative 11,000 square feet. We actually had a net loss in retail square footage occupied during the year. This is the time Net Absorption has been negative since we’ve tracked the market starting in 1990.
Included in the square footage of new deals in the area is the new Scheel’s Sporting Goods and Target, both of which opened in the Legends at Sparks Marina. These two stores accounted for over 400,000 square feet of the 947,000 that was completed. Just think how bad the numbers would have looked like if these two stores hadn’t opened.
The overall vacancy ended the year at just over 13%, anchor vacancy was 10.6% and line-shop vacancy was 16.8%. So how do these numbers compare to previous years? Well, this is the highest overall and anchor vacancy rates our area has had in over 18 years (since we have been tracking the market). The good news is that the line-shop vacancy hasn’t hit the high watermark, at least not yet. The illustrious year to hold that record was in 1990, after years of overbuilding in the late 80’s, coupled with the savings and loan crisis and a national recession.
The pundits tell us we entered this recession in December of 2007. At that time, we had relatively healthy vacancy numbers. During the good years, developers didn’t overbuild the market with unoccupied shopping centers like they did in the late 80’s. What they were doing was building as many shopping centers as retailers wanted to occupy. If there was excess in this last bubble, it was with the retailers who kept increasing their store count by 6-12% each year to prove to Wall Street that they were “growth companies”.
In analyzing the past, we see there were cracks that started to show in 2007-2008. Wall Street analysts started telling retailers they were not seeing increased return in net profit that was expected with the new stores. Some of the biggest names across the nation including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s gave notice they were trimming their capital budgets for future store growth, at least in the domestic market. Looking back, I think these signals were some of the first signs that something was afoot. The old ways of doing business for these retailers was not working any longer.
These warnings correspond with the beginnings of the residential downturn. What started slowly in the “Alt-A” housing market has culminated in a torrent of foreclosures. Consumers have been swamped with bad news on their housing values, stock market portfolio’s and even the future of their jobs. Of course the consumers cut their spending. Any rational consumer would look for ways to insulate themselves from this constant barrage of bad news. This translated into some of the most dramatic cutbacks in consumer spending in recent history. In Washoe County, the taxable sales for October 2008 were 13.9% lower than the previous year. Although statistics for November through December have not been released, it is expected that those figures will show a continuation of the dramatic decline in sales tax revenue. The same thing is happening across the nation, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the local economy. When it comes to retailers, some of the retailers who were already precarious as they entered this recession have been taken under, which gets us back full circle to the vacancies.
We have 1.6 million square feet of vacant space in the Reno/Sparks market. We expected this figure to climb during the first half of the year and perhaps longer. No doubt, it will take us quite some time to work our way out of the excesses of the past. The most challenging part is that there will be fewer retailers left to fill in the gaps. However, the strong retailers will survive and even thrive in a less cluttered field. New retailers will eventually emerge to satisfy new consumer demand, which will no doubt re-emerge. There is a good case to be made that there could be a snap back at some point as consumers realize they need to replace their cars, washing machines, computers and a myriad of other items they have become accustomed to having. The consumer has been knocked down and trampled on, but they will recover.
We are already 14 months into this recession, while most recessions have lasted no more that 16 months. I think we are in for a longer downturn than most of the previous cases, but my hope is that we are closer to the end than might be apparent from what we can see right now. If a floor in the housing collapse can be found and job losses subside, it will give consumers a chance to catch their breaths. The consumer will no doubt recover with time, but their future spending may stabilize at a more conservative level than during the years of excess.