Retailers seize on pandemic fallout to become property owners

Swiss high-end clothing retailer Akris purchased three buildings on New York City's Madison Ave. for $45M

Struggling shopping malls are finding an unexpected boost from bargain-hunting retail operators.

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Such was the case in Stamford, Conn., where the Stamford Town Center mall lost popular tenants like H&M, Apple Inc. and Talbots to a competing shopping center that opened last year only 8 miles away.

In October, home-furnishing company Safavieh purchased Town Center mall.

Safavieh plans to open a home-design center and relocate its nearby home furnishings store to the mall, said Arash Yaraghi, whose family runs the Port Washington, N.Y.-based company.

But, he added, "price is always the deciding factor." Safavieh paid $20 million for a property that was appraised at $64 million last year, according to a Stamford government website.

CORONAVIRUS LEAVES RETAILERS STRUGGLING TO PAY RENT

The coronavirus pandemic and its debilitating effect on shopping centers are providing growing retail operators with an opportunity to achieve something many have hoped to do for a while -- become owners.

"We have seen retailers zeroing in on buying opportunities," said Ariel Schuster, vice chairman at real-estate firm Newmark. "Historically, the most active buyers have been in the luxury sector."

In a recent example, Swiss high-end clothing retailer Akris purchased three buildings on New York City's Madison Ave. for $45 million -- a decade-low price for the ritzy neighborhood on a per square foot basis -- including the building that accommodates its Manhattan store.

FUTURE OF MALLS IN QUESTION AS CORONAVIRUS COULD CLOSE THOUSANDS OF STORES

Other retailers are taking advantage of the times to upgrade their rental space. Home Depot Inc. is planning to relocate its basement store in Manhattan's Upper East Side a few blocks away to a four-story store currently occupied by Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. The home-furnishings retailer, which has struggled with falling sales for years, is not renewing its lease as it works to close 63 stores by the end of its current fiscal year.

Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Connecticut (Google Earth View)

"We chose this location because it'll be convenient for residents on the Upper East Side and offered the space we need just as our existing lease expired," said Margaret Smith, a spokeswoman from Home Depot.

The landlord, Gazit Horizons Inc., said it was able to finalize a 20-year lease amid Covid-19 by offering Home Depot high ceilings and an ample loading area.

Gazit also plans to invest $15 million to $18 million to retrofit the space, according to filings by its Israeli-based parent with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Home Depot's total gross rent will be $9.5 million, up from the $5.8 million that Bed Bath & Beyond is paying, the filing added.

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Tenants looking for new real estate have consisted primarily of big sellers of groceries, furniture, discount goods and pet supplies that have benefited from people staying at home, brokers say.

But some specialty retailers have seized on opportunities, too. Sever Garcia, who relocated his accessories and travel items store from downtown Brooklyn to Manhattan's upscale Tribeca neighborhood, said his new landlord offered three months free rent and other incentives. This has helped him remain open, with foot traffic remaining weak as office workers and tourists haven't returned to the city.

These days, he is getting unsolicited offers from property owners in SoHo and Long Island with generous terms such as six months of rent based on a percentage of sales. But rather than tempt fate again during the pandemic, he is staying put for now. "It's not the best time to test new businesses," Mr. Garcia said.

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