The CEO of Vornado Realty Trust (VNO) , one of New York City's largest landlords, confirmed the obvious in his annual shareholder letter: something is rotten in the state of retail.
Steven Roth identified seven fundamental problems with the current retail industry in his letter, released Friday. "The U.S. is grossly overstored," he wrote, and "household name" brands have failed "in the anchor and chain store business." As a result, malls have seen declining traffic for years. Everyone, but especially millennials, has changed "shopping preferences and how we shop," with retailers struggling to keep up, so "price and on sale is the only strategy which seems to work."
Retail brands have "become ubiquitous" and, therefore, less differentiated and important. Finally, the classic retail boogeyman: "there is Amazon (AMZN) and the Internet."
All but the very best properties will be affected. "For flagship retail (and for A+ malls), this is a pause, a cyclical bump," Roth noted. "For everybody else, it is secular disruption."
The only solution, Roth argues, is the long and difficult process of retail bankruptcies and store closures.
"I do not believe we can grow our way out of this mess," he wrote. "I believe the only fix for brick and mortar retailing is rightsizing by the closing and evaporation of, you pick the number, 10%, 20%, 30% of the weakest space. This very painful process will surely take more than five years. It will also create enormous opportunity for those with the capital and management platforms to feed on the carnage."
Roth could have easily cited a disappointing jobs report to bolster his claims.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday that the retail sector lost 30,000 jobs in March, on top of 31,000 in February. At least 18 major retailers are likely to close waves of stores this year either due to major reorganizations or bankruptcies. Several of the latest bankruptcies include everyday value price department store operator Gordmans Stores (March 13), sporting goods retailer Gander Mountain (March 10), RadioShack successor General Wireless Operations (March 8), appliances, electronics and furniture retailer HHgregg (March 6) and ready-to-wear products designer and seller BCBG Max Azria (Feb. 28).
Most recently, discount shoe store chain Payless ShoeSource followed suit on Tuesday.
Roth's dire prognosis and the March jobs report contrast sharply with the upbeat commentary from the country's largest mall owner, Simon Property Group (SPG) .
CEO David Simon said on the company's fourth-quarter earnings call that only one of the company's 434 department stores is vacant, while it has added "275 sit-down or quick-service restaurants, more than 20 entertainment concepts and more than 80 big-box tenants across our portfolio over the last four, five years."
Simon also argued that members of Generation Z, the generation following millennials, are frequent mall visitors and that online retail sales are still less than 10% of total retail sales.
While Simon has doubled down, Vornado touted its prescience in reducing its mall exposure years ago.
The firm, "in the be-careful-what-you-wish-for department," determined that "retail was in secular decline" and began selling its shopping malls in 2012, also spinning off its strip mall business into Urban Edge Properties (UE) in early 2015.
However, Vornado retained its 2.7 million square feet of flagship retail in Manhattan on "the best high streets-Fifth Avenue, Times Square, Madison Avenue, Penn Plaza, Union Square and Soho." Roth wrote that that portfolio is "unique, irreplaceable and commands a premium," with only a few other cities similarly "enduring."
Vornado's tenants in these flagship Upper Fifth Avenue and Times Square properties include Disney (DIS) , L Brands' (LB) Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch's (ANF) Hollister, T-Mobile (TMUS) and luxury retailers like Harry Winston and Ferragamo. Anchor tenants at Penn Plaza, with shorter leases "to facilitate development," include J.C. Penney (JCP) , Sears Holdings' (SHLD) Kmart and Gap's (GPS) Old Navy.
Some retailers' response is to "hunker down rather than step up," a wrongheaded approach: "I do not believe we can grow our way out of this mess."
Roth likely has President Trump's ear on the matter: on Tuesday, he was one of the fifty business leaders attending a CEO town hall at the White House. In his remarks, Trump identified Roth as a friend of his and a "very good builder."
Roth has another White House connection, too. Vornado invested in 666 Fifth Avenue, the massively over-levered skyscraper owned by President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and his family, in 2011. "This is an ongoing, complex, dynamic, and unpredictable situation...and it is the rare case when we may be sellers," Roth wrote in the letter.