Podcast: Merchandisng Mix in Commercial Real Estate Centers: Today vs. Long View
Podcast: Merchandisng Mix in Commercial Real Estate Centers: Today vs. Long View
Updated on February 19, 2021
The Private Equity Real Estate Podcast – Show 4
This week we focus on the merchandising mix at commercial centers. We’ll discuss their importance and what it looks like today and how it can look in the future. Our guest is Adam Rosenzweig, the COO at First National Realty Partners, a 20+ year veteran who shares his knowledge on this topic. This is a great show with some impressive insights. Thanks for listening to The Private Equity Real Estate Podcast. If you want to hear any topics from the pros we bring on the show, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Announcer: You’re listening to the Private Equity Real Estate Podcast. Brought to you by First National Realty Partners, where investors learn from private equity experts and insiders. We share our own real world experiences so you can know exactly what it takes to be highly successful at investing in passive commercial real estate opportunities.
Nick: What is up, everyone? We are back. Thank you for joining us at the Private Equity Real Estate Podcast, brought to you by First National Realty Partners. This is the ultimate resource for passive real estate investors. I am your host, Nick Cucci. And today on our show, we have the Chief Operating Officer at FNRP Adam Rosenzweig. It is Adam Rosenzweig, right?
Adam: Rosenzweig. Yup.
Nick: Nice. Okay.
Adam: Very good, very good.
Nick: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule. I know you had a long call this morning, you’re still able to make the time for us. We really appreciate that. How’s the week going for you?
Adam: Like every week, we’re doing what we have to do. We’re taking our responsibilities, our obligations, we’re shepherding these assets through a very difficult time. As we continue to mold our team and add great players, we’re doing really well.
Nick: Well, that’s what it takes. You mentioned a really difficult time, and that is certainly something that we’re going to dig into today a little bit. And I’m excited to talk to you today because we have a really interesting topic. We’re going to talk about the merchandising mix in a commercial center, today versus the long-term view. And that’s something that you have had just a wealth of experience there.
Nick: For our listeners where this is the first time that they’ve had the chance to meet you. I’m wondering if you could tell us just a little bit of background into who you are and your career so far?
Adam: Sure, sure. Nick, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it. And it’s a great opportunity to meet some of our partners and to share my experience with them.
Adam: I’ve been in the retail industry for over 20 years now. I started on the third-party management side, what I call it learning from the ground up. So really starting with a financial background from bookkeeping to abstracting to budgeting.
Adam: Then I wanted to be at the table where it happened, as Hamilton likes to say. I got myself to the position of being a real estate director and then working for the Gap.
Adam: So I worked for Gap Corporate doing corporate real estate deals around the country. Initially four states, then 13 states, then doing outlet nationwide. And it was a great opportunity to learn from, at the time, was the largest specialty retailer in the world with one of the greatest retail platforms of deal making that every other company, for the most part, has used as their basis.
Nick: How many years were you at Gap?
Adam: Two and a half to three.
Nick: Two and a half to three years. How many deals did you do in that time? I feel like that’s probably a nonstop type of environment.
Adam: Well, it actually is not. It’s a little bit more strategic. At the time, it was one of the fastest-growing companies. So it actually had more deliberation, which was a good thing because we really had to understand the markets, okay?
Adam: So this was in the mid-2000s. We had to understand the shifting because that’s when malls really started to shift. It’s before we saw the major department store bankruptcies, but we could see it coming. We had to look and understand where… I put together a summary, we had Old Navy’s, and the prototypical as the company grew was 16, 18, they went up to 26,000 feet.
Adam: And we had to look out and say, “You know what? 26 is too big. We need to get down to 18 or 16. And how do we go about doing that? How do we create a win-win scenario for the landlord and for us to be able to give back space and have them lease it out to a complimentary co-tenant, i.e. merchandise mix, that works for everybody?” So it was a lot more in-depth than just slinging deals as some of the faster-growing retailers do.
Nick: Thanks for digging into that for a second. Love for you to just kind of continue the story about how you ended up here at FNRP.
Adam: So then from that, I was approached by a really well-respected, entrepreneurial, family-owned development company based out of the Philadelphia area that I had followed for years and admired. Building power centers with home improvement, a Target or Walmart and a supermarket and another 200,000 square feet.
Adam: They brought me on to lease and ultimately replace the senior partner, who was retiring. And it was a tremendous opportunity. I joined in 2008 right at the peak, and had the opportunity through the worst down cycle, to really understand how the landlord’s side of the business worked. Working with our loan constraints, our tenant constraints, bankruptcies, partners, distributions, all the like.
Adam: So it was a great [inaudible 00:04:52] And because we’re entrepreneurial and we didn’t really have to answer to Wall Street, we had the ability to be creative. And that gives you the ability to really understand what it takes to come out of the other side.
Adam: Just as an example, we had a property where we lost a Limited Things and a Circuit City and a Best Buy. And our grocer was a shadow anchor, which means we didn’t own it. And the Home Depot was a shadow anchor. So out of 400,000 feet, we owned 120, of which we lost 50% of the revenue.
Adam: So we had to make a strategic decision. Do we take the quick, Aldi’s deal, which I said no to, because to me that destroyed the merchandising mix. Or do we wait for HomeGoods, who I knew was going to come? We decided to wait for HomeGoods, which was the right idea. But in that period of time, we were not able to satisfy our CMBS loan.
Adam: We ended up going into pretty much a foreclosure but had a secondary lender, our company’s lender, ready for a balance sheet, interest reserve loan. That allowed us to fund the improvements for the HomeGoods, and for the replacement tenant for Circuit City, HHGregg. That got us out of the default foreclosure, allowed us to fund the improvements, and then take the property back out with new 10 year terms for these two anchor tenants and recast a new 10-year deal.
Adam: So that was [crosstalk 00:06:17]
Nick: What’s amazing about that right there, is your capability to not be emotional in those moments. Because a lot of people may not be able to think about it logically and just say, “Well, this is the course of action that we need to take,” and then be able to implement that, which you were able to do.
Adam: Yeah. I mean, to go to the point, and jumping ahead a little bit, that’s the idea behind a merchandising mix, right? You can’t look at it in a vacuum as, “Oh my God. I have a 12,000 square foot vacancy I have to fill it. There’s a great tenant.” What’s the redounding effect of having that tenant as part of your shopping center?
Adam: Because if you’re trying to attract a certain quality tenant, and you fill a medium-size box with maybe a not so well respected tenant, the national guys who would otherwise look at your center are going to look at it… That’s an indicator to them. That’s an indicator to them that the market has changed. That’s an indicator to them that, you know what? Their client is not necessarily there anymore.
Adam: So you have to be patient, have enough discipline to really understand it, and utilize the resources that we have through our networks on the ground and through our networks that we, as a team, have developed over the years to really understand the market. To get to the root of the tenants that we want to bring in, understand what it takes to get them there, and then make it happen.
Nick: Yeah, that is such good info. For anybody who’s listening and this is the first time that they’re hearing about the merchandising mix, just rewind the last 60 seconds and play it back, because that is just gold right there.
Nick: So we started to dig into the merchandising mix a little bit, but I guess give us just a general overview for somebody who doesn’t know. What is a merchandising mix, and why is it crucially important to the success of any type of commercial center?
Adam: So, Nick, it is second to the key for any real estate, which is location, location, location. That’s first and foremost. The second thing is merchandising mix. It’s great you have the hard corner. It’s great you have the grocer or the home improvement store. But those guys only represent so much of your income. It’s all the complimentary tenants.
Adam: The merchandising mix is an array of goods, services, needs, and wants, all mixed together to create a cross-shopping experience. So when you come to the grocery store, what else are you going to do? You’re going to drop off a prescription. You’re going to drop off dry cleaning. You’re going to get your nails done.
Adam: Maybe you’re going to come and work out at Bar Method or spin class, and then go have a salad and SweetGreen, okay? Maybe you’re going to go get a massage, and when you’re done you have to go to the bank, or you want to sit out and have a Starbucks coffee with your friends.
Adam: It’s that type of environment that you want to create because people want to be where people are, right? People want to be where the action is.
Nick: Absolutely. You’re creating synergy in a commercial environment. It makes perfect sense. I’m sure it’s easier said than done though. So when it comes to actually getting it done, when you approach a new project, you’re strategically jumping in, what are the first items that you look at to get to the end goal that you might have in mind?
Adam: That’s a great question. So at First National, when we look at acquiring property, for me, the first thing I look at, there’s two, okay, is I want to look at the rent roll and I want to look at a site plan. I want to understand who the anchor tenant is, how much time is left on their lease, and what their footprint is.
Adam: Maybe it’s an old lease and they’re too big, or they’re too small, right? How can we operate a more efficient property to allow our tenants to be more financially successful? So the rent roll is your guide plan, right? That tells you how much time’s left, how little time’s left. That can be good and it can be bad.
Adam: And those are the two things I look at to be able to determine what opportunity lies within the actual real estate that’s on the property today.
Nick: And then from there… You’ve got your rent roll, you understand what you’re walking into, and then you understand the time that’s left on the existing tenants. And based on that, that’s how you’ll start to shape what you’re going to do. If you walk into a Target that has 20 years left, versus a Walmart that has a year and a half left that may be unsure of their next move.
Nick: Is that correct? Is that sort of how you approach the look?
Adam: I do. That’s how I approach it. And then I utilize my Rolodex and relationships. We were looking at another grocer deal. The FNRP mantra is, you look at a thousand deals to close one. We’re closing on a successful ShopRite deal very soon, if not this week.
Adam: And we were looking at another grocery store. We looked at it, we looked at the rent roll. The store was under-sized. There was an ability to expand. That was a great opportunity.
Adam: But then when we dug in, I reached out to the grocer. I found out they’d been trying to do it for years. Then we called the municipality and the municipality said, “There’s issues with X, Y, and Z.” We said, “You know what? It’s not where we want to spend our time.” The opportunity, the potential for the upside, the risk of it was not worth the reward. So we moved on.
Adam: Because by the way, in expanding that grocer, we would have lost all the ancillary retail that was next to it today. Which, again, if you had a new 20-year term from the grocer it would not be a bad investment, but there were no guarantees you could do it. And we make more strategic decisions than that.
Nick: That’s a great example. Are there any stories that you can share, previous projects, where maybe you walked into a center where there was no synergy? It was an unattractive merchandising mix, but you saw the opportunity and were able to push forward and create a great outcome.
Adam: I think back to what I’ll call, it gave me the value-added [bog 00:00:12:16]. In the early days of my career, there was a property in the city of Philadelphia that spanned about four or five entire city blocks. And it was owned by three or four different ownership groups. One owner, who was my client, acquired the rest of the property. He had an existing supermarket, and a bunch of retail, and of two QSR restaurant freestanding paths.
Adam: The rest of the property, which by the way, was contiguous, had an older supermarket that was vacant, a second-floor bowling alley, and 45,000 square feet of vacancy with great visibility to the highway on the corner.
Adam: All right?
Nick: Sounds awesome.
Adam: What we did is, we went in and said, “Okay, we already have a supermarket. The former supermarket, we turned into a junior discount department store, one of the top two brands that everybody wants across the country. We turned the bowling alley into a Bally’s Fitness, which now is LA Fitness.
Adam: And we back-filled the 40,000 square feet between a sporting goods store and a home furnishing store. Re-skinned the entire facade across the entire front to give it a uniform look. Then you added in the islands and new striping and new light poles and gave the center a whole new look.
Adam: And that was great because what that did is, in addition to the daily service and goods between the grocery store and the post office and the nail salon, it now brought in the treasure hunter every day. It now brought it in the weekend daily traffic for sporting goods, the home furnishing. So brought in the kids, the dads, and the moms for the home furnishing.
Adam: So it really created a good merchandising mix across the whole property. And from that, we were able to lease, call it the four to 8,000 square foot spaces out to the apparel tenants that saw that traffic coming into the center.
Nick: That’s fantastic. Now, when you approach a project like that, how much runway do you have to give yourself? How much timing are you thinking? What’s that, like six months? A year? A year and a half until you see the vision come to life?
Adam: It’s like, it’s like a good trial lawyer won’t ask a question that they don’t know the answer to already. We’re not going to buy a property on chance. So if we do that, we’re going to have the tenant in our pocket before we go and buy something to do it.
Then it really is dependent upon, are we changing the footprint of the property, which would then trigger permits, and entitlements through the municipality? And if the answer is no, I would tell you from the time we say go, to the time that the last flower’s planted in the new garden bed, it could be up to 18 months.
Nick: Got it. Okay. Now that’s the value-add strategy. Now how about ground-up? And what’s the difference between when it comes to a merchandising mix for ground-up versus existing?
Adam: Nick, the answer to that question is, at this point, there’s very, very few opportunities for ground-up development. So I’m going to answer this retroactively, shall we say.
Adam: Ground-up development is really driven by tenant relationships. So we have done, in my previous career, five Target deals. We know where Target wants to be. Same with Lowe’s. Same with ShopRite. Same with Giant. All these drivers, okay, the anchors.
Adam: When you’re working with these tenants day in and day out, you know where their next geographic desirable area is. So you’re starting with the foundation already, and then you have the canvas to sort of fill in around it what you want.
Adam: It’s somewhat easier because you can deliver at the time, the prototypical size layout for all the tenants that you have. But it’s challenging in that, economics are tight. Entitlements are long. Challenges are surprising.
Adam: So from a creativity point, it’s easier to some extent to do ground-up, but it’s also more challenging from all the other factors.
Nick: If you’re given a huge plot of vacant land in a desirable location, or an existing commercial center that you could redevelop, which one do you choose and why?
Adam: It’s hard to answer in a vacuum. Because again, it all comes down to, in today’s world, we are over retailed, okay? America has 26 square feet per person of retail, versus the next closest, which I think is Canada at 13, to Europe, which is in like the high single digits, to Asia, which is the low single digits.
Adam: It’s all about the location. You look at these regional malls. I’d rather take a dead regional mall, because look where the regional malls are. They sit off the interchanges of a highway and a main thoroughfare in the local community. Main and main. That’s what you want. Versus somebody says, “Hey, I have a great piece of farmland.” It’s at a great corner, but it’s on the outer ring of the primary area. I think I’d rather take the main and main location.
Adam: Because it’s not necessarily retail, right? There is a regional mall to me that exists today, the outside is restaurants, the inside’s dead. It should be a hospital. It should be a hospital because of its geographic location. It’s just a land cover play today with what exists on it.
Adam: So to answer your question, I think I’d rather have the existing real estate that’s well-positioned than a piece of dirt that needs to be fully entitled and approved.
Nick: Yeah. I love the perspective. And you’re starting to touch on… What we mentioned at the top of the show is that it’s an interesting landscape right now. It’s a really tough time. We’re recording this in July 2020. We’re still going through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nick: And we already, I think everybody started to feel a shift in… The mall space is a great example because there’s a lot of dead malls that are out there right now. And we’re seeing these commercial centers that are starting to take new life in various ways.
Nick: And I feel like COVID-19 is now, this is the quickening of that process from what I can see. I’m interested in your thoughts as we see where we are today, but maybe if you can give us kind of your idea of what’s today versus the future look like for the merchandising mix?
Adam: You know, before COVID hit, we were in the midst of, call it the greatest evolution disturbance of retail due to Amazon, where the Amazon effect caused developers and owners to shift their retail to experiential. What drives people to come out? It’s not going to a traditional Banana Republic, Ann Taylor type of store anymore, because you can order all that online. It’s restaurants, it’s fitness, and it’s entertainment. Well, what’s impacted by COVID? Fitness, restaurants, and entertainment.
Adam: So right now there’s a little bit of unknown as to where we’re going to be in the next six months. But I take the long view. And the long view is, in 18 months, we will have some kind of resolution to what’s going on with the pandemic. Things will continue to evolve, and we will see a resurgence or a stabilization of those three categories, which are what, call it developments, are now based upon today. In addition to your basic goods and services.
Adam: Meaning a lot of our FNRP portfolio, besides grocery, are basic necessities. Dry cleaner, spa, fitness, post office, bank, coffee, food. They’re not going anywhere, right? Those are internet-resistant users. And that comprises a significant portion of our portfolio.
Nick: You’re talking about the Amazon effect and how there’s been just this monumental shift to online. And now there’s the omnichannel effort. We’re walking into spaces, and our spaces are a seamless experience from our phones to the radio nowadays.
Nick: How has omnichannel marketing moved into the commercial center? Are you seeing that effect at all? And how do we do it better?
Adam: So, Nick, I’ve actually written about this. Again, prior to COVID. The omnichannel factor actually plays a really important role in maintaining our retail world as we know it. Meaning the statistics are now there that show, even in a tertiary market where you have retailers that might not be necessity-based retailers, the statistics show that the placement of such a store shows a larger percentage of online ordering and distribution to that geographic circle around that store, as opposed to if it not being there.
Adam: Again, I don’t want to name retailer names, but there is a property in a very tertiary market that has called the traditional power retailers. And they know from other experiences when they close it, they’re not going to recapture that business at the regional mall that’s 42 miles south of where they are. They’re just not. They’ll catch a very small percent.
Adam: What that does, the omnichannel, because everything is digitized, they have much better inventory control. Where retailers’ health occupancy used to be between eight and 10%. That was a healthy store. It can now be 13, 14%.
Adam: And why is that? Because their margins are better. Because the inventory tracking from omnichannel knows that, in this market, we need to stock 70% mediums and only 2% smalls, as opposed to shipping 20, 20, 20, 20 of each size.
Adam: So when your inventory control is tighter, because you have the statistics to show what you’re selling in that particular store, you’re not leftover with abundant merchandise for the season that you then have to discount just to get off the shelf. So the retailers, if they were doing $2 million before and had a 20% margin, they can now do 1.6 million, but have a 30% margin and actually be healthier.
Nick: That’s amazing. I feel like because everything is data-driven nowadays, and the data-driven component, that’s a prime example of how data-driven inventory tracking will just make for smarter decisions.
Nick: So, let’s shift gears a little bit. We work in four main types of commercial spaces. Retail, multifamily, office, and industrial. Of those, you mentioned the disruption component before, which one do you think is going to see the most disruption in the coming years?
Adam: It’s going to be a toss-up between office and retail. It is.
Nick: Do you think we’re going to start to blur the lines between a couple of commercial spaces?
Adam: I don’t think on a mass level, no.
Adam: I don’t. I think in select cities with a select group of population, that can happen. Here’s a prime example. In Seattle, around the Amazon campus, a developer built a residential tower where you walk in and the whole lobby area is drop shops within the space.
Adam: So there was a florist in there. There was a coffee shop in there. There was a bike store in the whole lobby. Now, granted this spanned an entire city block. Then on the mezzanine was the amenities level. Pool table, televisions, breakout rooms. And all around the lobby were comfortable seating area for the residents to live, work, have their coffee, right?
Adam: That worked in that environment. That might not work in Cincinnati. That might not work in Philadelphia. That it might not work in Miami. It’s geographically dependent. But that goes to your question is, do you see sort of a conglomerate of the office and retail together? In select areas, yes.
Nick: But it’s interesting. Because as you mentioned that, I’m thinking in Holmdel, New Jersey, they have Bell Works.
Nick: And Bell Works is the old Bell Laboratory that is very similar to what you were just calling out. Where you walk in and there’s, sort of a mall on the first level, all of these comfy spaces where you can hang out. The second floor, all open air, is all businesses that are in there. And the surrounding campus, I believe Toll Brothers took it over and now has beautiful homes. They built a beautiful neighborhood in there.
Nick: So it’s really interesting to see these sorts of future spaces come about. Any other future spaces that you’ve seen, or that you’re considering might come out, we might start to see in the coming years?
Adam: From a retail perspective, thinking about our portfolio and how do we fill spaces, going back to the initial question of merchandising mix. Predominantly we’d like to see a merchandising mix that draws different types of consumers to the property.
Adam: But ultimately there will be a point in time where there might not be enough demand to fill for traditional retail. So we might have a former department store, which we can lease the front half to, but the back half becomes vacant. And if you want to draw people, why not some kind of virtual experience?
Adam: Meaning, prime example. In one of our properties, we have second-floor space. We have a lease out now to a virtual church. Virtual church.
Nick: Interesting. Okay, right. I’ve never heard of a virtual church.
Adam: I haven’t either. Until two weeks ago. So they are going to create a virtual church that will have its congregants, they’ll have workshops, and they’re going to do what you and I are doing. They’re going to have virtual filming and they’re going to broadcast to their congregants. And they’re going to utilize the space for workshops, I guess, during the week as needed.
Adam: And therefore they don’t have to buy a huge piece of property, make the huge investment in a huge building to see anywhere from 50 to 350 congregants on a Sunday, right? It’s a virtual church.
Adam: I think something like that would be interesting to have in a shopping center. Because as they do workshops, guess what? That’s going to bring people into the center. And once they’re there, they’re going to go and maybe have lunch, maybe do a workout, maybe do their banking, go buy some groceries, have a massage. So I think that has some kind of legs to it going forward.
Nick: I agree. It’s a wild concept to hear of a virtual church, but I’ll tell you what. Somebody is going to make it work. That’s the beauty of the virtual space that we’re living in. There’s a lot of white space opportunities.
Adam: Yeah. And that’s being creative with… I return every prospecting phone call, my team and I return every one as it relates to leasing because you just don’t know. You can’t make an assumption. You have to be open-minded.
Adam: Because look, it might not work in the center their calling for, but it might work elsewhere or it might lead to another conversation that creates another opportunity to capitalize upon.
Nick: Absolutely. I think in general, that’s just a fantastic practice that you don’t shut anything down immediately. You at least prospect the call or the opportunity and see if… Maybe it’s not the right opportunity now, but it could lead to something else. I think in general, it’s just a fantastic business practice.
Nick: Are there any final thoughts for the listeners about… It could be anything merchandising mix or the future of the merchandising mix at commercial centers.
Adam: I just think it’s a really exciting time. Challenging, but exciting. It’s accelerating the evolution of retail. And I think in 12 months, we’ll see, not a completely different, not 180-degree shift in the horizon, but we’re going to see a shift.
Adam: From chaos comes opportunity. And we have our fingers to the pulse. We have our teams on the ground. We have our resources that we’ve created. And I think it’s an exciting time to be in the retail sector, owning the right located real estate. Which we do.
Nick: Yeah, I agree. And again, thank you for taking the time and coming on. This was a really interesting topic. And hopefully swing back and hang out with us again some time.
Adam: Nick, thank you very much. I really enjoyed it. I hope our listeners do as well. And thank you for the time. Thank you for the questions.
Nick: Absolutely. And just before we close the call out today, I ask everyone three quick questions. First question for you is, what’s your favorite business book?
Adam: I Love Capitalism by Ken Langone.
Nick: Nice. I haven’t read that one yet. That’ll go on the list. What’s your favorite food?
Adam: Pizza. When I say pizza, home, Nona’s pizza. Not like industrial-made, like real, good, brick oven pizza.
Nick: Are we talking like a grandma’s pie? Like a thin crust?
Adam: With great marinara, flavorful, oily cheese, and really good pepperoni.
Nick: All right. I know what’s I know what’s for lunch today now. I’m going to have to get up and run an extra mile tomorrow. And then if you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Adam: Never been to New Zealand. Why not? And they’re COVID-free. So yes, New Zealand. Let’s say New Zealand.
Nick: There you go. I went to New Zealand on my honeymoon. I got to check out the South Island. It was pretty wild. I got a couple shots that I’ll send you. It was an experience.
Nick: Adam, thank you again for the time. We’ll have you on again soon.
Nick: And everybody else, thank you for listening to the Private Equity Real Estate Podcast. This show is brought to you as always by First National Realty Partners, one of the top syndicates of private institutional-quality real estate in the country. If you’re interested in learning more about FNRP or would like to get access to our private offerings, please click the link in the show notes or visit FNRPusa.com.
Nick: A quick reminder that the show is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered a solicitation to purchase securities or be construed as tax, legal, investment, or accounting advice.
Nick: Thanks again for listening everyone. We will see you next week.
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