Good vibes, but serious concerns, emerge from New York ICSC show

The good vibes, as well as the negative rumblings, that percolate through big events are an annual check on the pulse of an industry. In the case of retail real estate, I am happy to report that the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives at ICSC’s Deal Making show in New York last week. 

Let’s start with the good stuff.
 
The conference seemed very well attended in comparison to years past, particularly on Monday. There was enough of a drop-off on Tuesday that I couldn’t help but wonder if some attendees treated it like a one-day event going in. This is an East Coast event and attendance is naturally weighted toward eastern companies, but this year’s edition had a noticeably national and international flavor. Perhaps it’s not surprising since international retailers are moving into the U.S. at a headier pace. I particularly noticed that Asian-based retailers in attendance (names like Muji stood out to me), but badges also carried the names of brands and businesses from South America and Europe.
 
Retailers seemed to be embracing the notion they needed to right-size their box prototypes based on what was most efficient for them in an increasingly omnichannel world. Everything from store design to merchandising strategy is evolving, and it was exciting to see brick-and-mortar retailers demonstrating flexibility toward embracing some of those ongoing changes.
 
That flexibility was also in evidence when it came to the topic of redeveloping and repurposing vacant or under-performing enclosed malls. Developers appeared to be finding more interesting and creative ways of subdividing vacant department stores with an eye toward inspiring greater customer interest and generating more sales than the previous use. Restaurant and entertainment brands tend to be the lead players here, but we’re beginning to see more supermarket brands and daily needs retail moving into those spaces.
 
The big idea here is attracting different visitors and driving daily business to the larger mall, an objective that helps explain the ongoing mixed-use renaissance. Mall developers, after shying away from it for many years, are embracing mixed-use. Perhaps more importantly, so is Wall Street. There is a general understanding that the real estate itself is a true value and can generate more profit in the near future.
 
Based on what I saw at ICSC New York, there is also plenty of urban and close-in redevelopment taking place–a trend that allows retail to be located closer to the customer and closer to transportation patterns and transit hubs.
 
While these are all heartening developments, there were a few trends and talking points in evidence that I was less enthusiastic about. A number of developers I spoke with said they are having trouble getting deals done. I’ve been aware of this issue for some time, but not to the extent that I heard in New York. Retailers are taking more time deciding on locations and negotiating mutually agreeable solutions. It’s possible that retailers who have tightened up their portfolios and invested more in online presences are being more deliberative about site selection and growth plans. As growth curves get tighter than they used to be, the operational mind-set is that every decision is impactful.
 
What I saw and heard at ICSC also raised some questions about the future of luxury retail. Many experienced people on the show floor expressed the belief that it was an overbuilt segment. We aren’t seeing many outlet-driven malls proposed for development -- and some that were in the pipeline have since been cancelled. The growing general consensus is that most metro markets can only really support one or two outlet-retail-based developments. The prevalent thinking was that luxury can be like teen apparel, where brands can go from very hot to very cold seemingly overnight. Coach is a prime example of this phenomenon.
 
While well attended, the mood at ICSC New York was not as buoyant as in past years. There seemed to be concern about how developers refinance their assets if interest rates go up–which some were predicting would happen. I also found it odd that there was not more talk about the results of the presidential election. Maybe it’s a reluctance to discuss politics, or uncertainty about what the markets will do given the poor performance of predictions both before and after the election. It may be that, no matter what side you are on, everyone is still a little bit in shock at the results. 
 
At the close of another December show in New York, that quiet questioning about what the future may hold might have been the biggest and most important takeaway of all.