With the economic recovery minting winners and losers among industries upended by the pandemic, one sector expected to be hit hard is rebounding strongly.
Retail is benefitting from consumers’ pent-up demand and those who held their jobs during the shutdown and fattened their bank accounts. Several indicators of economic growth are trending upward, driven by strong demand for goods needed for the home, travel and entertainment.
Locally, a database of retail openings and closings maintained by the Columbus research team at Colliers shows the industry’s fortunes have largely tracked the progress of Covid-19.
Overall, the number of openings and announced expansions have outpaced closures by more than half since March 2020, according to Hannah Williams, Colliers’ senior research coordinator.
And the pace has been picking up in 2021, said Gilli Zofan, a Colliers vice president who runs the office’s retail team along with colleague Andrew White.
“If you look at February and really March, it skyrocketed in openings. They really took off – 20 openings in April, six openings in March, even back to January, 10 openings,” Zofan said.
He said you can “definitely see the turn” toward recovery as vaccines began rolling out across the country in January.
“The closures really stopped as we turned the new year and the holidays,” Zofan said. “It's the right signs.”
Here are some of the trends the Colliers team is seeing:
There are more openings in the ring cities instead of Columbus proper, particularly leaving downtown out of the rebound. Zofan said although that makes sense considering how many people have been homebound over the past year, it is a dramatic shift from pre-pandemic times.
“We know urban was on fire,” he said. “I mean the Short North, Brewery District, for good real estate there was strong demand. And as expected, the suburban (markets) really picked up a lot of benefit from that.”
“I think the suburban made it more accommodating for a lot of obvious reasons so that that trickle back to the urban core is going to take longer,” White said. “I think that behavioral pattern does probably lag behind. But there's some vibrancy down there that we're starting to see.”
Zofan said landlords have been able to hold the line on concessions by and large, but the benefit is skewing toward owners of top-tier properties.
“Rents have really gone up. It's been that K-(shape) shift, like where Grade A, Grade B, it's only gone on up,” he said. “The in-demand properties are only more in-demand. It's the ones that probably have struggled a little bit that have only been maybe forced to offer a little bit more incentives, whether it be free rent, whatever that incentive is, to get that because they were already not in the right position or had some deficiency that wasn't helping them lease their space.”
“I think it speaks to a larger point about how these businesses are now trying to be opportunistic as we head into the post-Covid world,” White said. “So new construction, good positioning, they are going to pay for that. Premium product still goes at a premium price here.”
Zofan said while local companies are doing the vast majority of openings, the national retailers that survived the pandemic will ramp up soon after coming out of their defensive postures.
“Covid, everybody hatched down, they lowered their (capital expenditure) budgets, they wanted to still stay strong on the balance sheet,” he said. “So they called off capex expenditures. And we all know in retail, capex is openings. … There's gonna be a little bit of a lag, but they're active; they just want to stagger their openings, like they always have. But you're seeing a lot of activity across the board, I think, with national brands that want to open.”
The rapidly rising cost of construction materials that is hampering real estate is making retail openings harder.
“Deals take longer, and I think it's that trickle down effect. … Pre-Covid we were talking about negotiating where landlords would offer to pay the expedited permit fee with the city, and tenants would love it, and we could negotiate deals with a 60-day buildout because everybody can make it work. Now, you're lucky to get a cabinet order within four months, if it's wood. And so how are you going to build out a space if you have to use four months just to order products?”
Americans by and large stopped going to the gym during the pandemic, and even after restrictions were lifted they aren’t seeing the same levels of business. That’s stopped a vibrant corner of the market that was leasing lots of spaces around the region, Zofan said.
“Prior to Covid, Crunch (Fitness) was making a big move in Columbus. So was Planet Fitness, continuing their continued growth in our market. Even on the smaller side like yoga, Orange Theory, all those were very, very active,” he said.
“Whenever we talk to brokers, that is probably the big unknown, not knowing how the return was going to be and when the return was going to be and, well, the whole gamut.”