It is hard to think of a worse time for Britain’s battered retailers. Whole chains are closing down, and even where they remain alive branches are getting pruned. Rents are being forced down with threats of bankruptcy if the chains are not allowed to pay less. Philip Green’s Arcadia empire, which includes Topshop, is the latest case in point. With every week that passes, the outlook gets bleaker for anyone who runs a shop, and understandably investors are getting very nervous about the fate of the companies that own all that space. After all, a lot of high streets are already virtually dead, and out-of-town shopping centres are increasingly heading in the same direction.
Take Intu Group, which owns shopping centres in Manchester, Lakeside in Essex, as well as in Spain. Earlier this year it had to write down the value of its portfolio by £1.4bn, which more than wiped out its profits for the year. Hammerson, which owns shopping centres such as Brent Cross in north London, swung into losses this year.
But hold on. A lot of retail space is prime real estate. The landlords just need to start reinventing it – and thinking about all the ways it can be used for something other than traditional retailing. Once they do, it will quickly become clear that it is more valuable than anyone realises right now, and might even prove a bargain.
The property industry needs imagination
True, the immediate outlook is very challenging. A big shopping centre is an expensive asset to maintain. It has to be cleaned, lit, staffed, and constantly refurbished. If it isn’t full, then very quickly you are going to be in serious trouble.
And yet, it may not be completely hopeless. In fact, all the property industry has to do is to start showing some imagination. In the United States, Amazon has started buying up half-dead malls and using them as distribution centres. There are a couple in Ohio alone, where old retail premises have been demolished and instead the internet giant is using the space to ship out its merchandise. Others are being turned into depots for logistics and delivery companies, and even more are being converted into industrial units. There will be some conversion costs. But it is a lot better than simply leaving an old shopping centre to turn into a ruin.
How to revamp shopping centres
There is plenty of potential to try something similar in this country. Distribution centres for internet retailers are the most obvious conversion that can be made. Amazon and its rivals need lots of space to deliver all the stuff we order online. That has the potential to keep on growing.
Likewise, supermarkets have been building “dark stores” for their home-delivery units. Instead of building new ones, however, they can convert old retail sheds inside the traditional shopping centres. The booming home-delivery food industry has been setting up “dark kitchens”, where meals are cooked for home delivery, but without an actual restaurant attached. It might be easier to use an abandoned restaurant site at a shopping centre rather than build one.
There are other uses too. Shared office companies such as WeWork, which are providing space for rapidly expanding small companies, could easily take over a department store and convert it. A lot of shopping centres could be turned into housing, along with schools and doctors’ surgeries, and of course if only half the space was rezoned as residential space, then there would be lots of new, local customers for the half that remained devoted to retailing and leisure.
Over the next couple of years, the big property companies are likely to be very cheap. But it shouldn’t be all that long before the shopping-centre industry becomes a buy. Most of the out-of-town shopping centres are still fundamentally excellent real estate. They have good access to roads on the edge of cities in a country with a growing population and a shortage of land. All it takes is the creativity to adapt to the way the economy has changed.