NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The traditional shopping mall, long an iconic symbol of American consumerism, is facing significant challenges. But while rumors of its demise may not necessarily be greatly exaggerated, they certainly don't tell the whole story.
The reality is many high-end malls are doing quite well, while other mid-tier and lower-end shopping centers are struggling mightily or closing altogether. And those dying malls are taking some retailers down with them.
"Retail is undergoing a transformation. It's always been a business of creative destruction, but the pace is accelerating due to the introduction of e-commerce," says Tad Philipp, director, CRE Research, Moody's Investors Service.
Trouble for Traditional Anchors
In addition to, or perhaps because of, the competition from e-commerce, malls have been pressured by the poor performance of high-profile national mall anchors. Philipp mentions J.C. Penney (JCP) - Get J. C. Penney Company, Inc. Report and Sears (SHLD) , which have both been struggling for some time, as examples. "[Moody's has] them rated in the Caa category, which is deeply into speculative grade. Between the two, we think J.C. Penney has the more established recovery strategy."
Trouble at these anchor chains has meant trouble for stores that rely on them for traffic. Philipp says the business model for malls used to be, and still is in many cases, that the anchors would draw customers to the mall and landlords would make money by renting out the space between the anchors to smaller stores. "So the traditional mall is shaped like an 'X' with a big box anchor on the sides and maybe a food court in the middle, and the people walk back and forth," he explains.
Larger economic factors also enter the picture. The recession that hit in late 2007 and the subsequent sluggish recovery have created less sales volume in general. On top of that, the eroding middle class has put mid-tier department stores under pressure as customers who have traditionally shopped there are either "trading up" to better retailers or "trading down" to discounters. Finally, too many malls were likely built in previous decades, leading to a correction today.
Which Stores Are Feeling the Hurt?
All of these factors together mean more challenges than some malls can withstand, and that has, in turn, impacted smaller chains that have relied on mall traffic and successful anchor tenants for sales. Mike Zuccaro, an analyst at Moody's, says teen retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) - Get Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Class A Report, Aeropostale (ARO) and American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) - Get American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. Report have been among the hardest hit from weaker mall traffic.
These retailers, Zuccaro says, are also contending with "intense competition for the teen wallet" from fast-fashion competitors such as H&M and Zara, as well as from non-apparel retail sectors such as electronics. This, he says, has led to high promotion levels, which has further pressured profitability. For example, Abercrombie and Fitch's operating margin stands at about 5.5%, down from about 8.5% in 2012 and 20+% prior to 2008, says Zuccaro.
Some chains that are tied so closely to malls find themselves with limited options when those malls start to suffer. Zuccaro notes that Sbarro was driven into bankruptcy twice, in part, because its reliance on real estate within mall food courts limited its flexibility to try out certain alternative strategies, such as expanding hours to include breakfast or late-night. He notes that, for these chains, malls will remain important, but finding locations outside of malls "is a key focus."
The Ones That Have Figured It Out
The issues facing malls did not arrive overnight, and in fact some of the challenges have been discussed for a while. "For many years, people have been talking about how hundreds of malls would close," explains Philipp. "But they never quite seemed to. Now we're in the stage where that process is underway."
Some malls and retailers saw the signs and have managed to adapt. Scott Tuhy, Moody's vice president and senior credit officer, says traditional mall anchor tenants that are faring better in the current environment have managed to "invest in utilizing their size and scale" to better serve their customers. He says, "For example, Macy's (M) - Get Macy's Inc Report has been at the forefront of localizing inventories at the store level to better meet the needs of consumers in that market. This means customers are more likely to find what they want, and by having fewer less-desirable products, Macy's can lower its risk of taking high markdowns on slow selling merchandise."
Some retailers have also been able to differentiate themselves through omnichannel retailing, says Tuhy, which is "where retailers can integrate inventory and selling across brick and mortar and online." He cites Nordstrom (JWN) - Get Nordstrom, Inc. (JWN) Reportas an early pioneer, "which has been a positive for them."
Those who significantly invest in increasing e-commerce sales are finding success as well. Zuccaro says Pier 1 (PIR) - Get Pier 1 Imports, Inc. Report is an emerging success story in this area. "In its latest quarter, e-commerce sales grew three-fold over last year, reaching 12% of total sales," Zuccaro points out.
As for the malls themselves, the successful ones have reinvented themselves to provide shopping options that are not as susceptible to e-commerce competition. Philipp says e-commerce penetration can be very high for retail segments like books and electronics. Other sectors, such as food and hair salons, are more insulated.
"Ultimately, it's all about the shopping experience," Philipp says. "The high-sales-volume malls tend to have very attractive features that draw customers in, where some of the secondary and tertiary malls without a lot of support services, restaurants and entertainment really are the ones at most risk of closing."
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.