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Accounting For E-commerce In Retail Property Values

"Computing value can get complicated if stores are required to mix online sales with physical sales."

Shopping via smartphones and tablets is here to stay, but the new-found convenience has introduced new uncertainties and complexities to shopping center owners, developers and investors.

The uncertainty stems from the ways e-commerce complicates shopping center valuations and development. Appraisers, assessors and property investors are forced to reconsider previously accepted answers to fundamental questions: What is the relative value of in-line stores and anchors? How should stores on contiguous parcels comprising a regional mall be valued? How fundamental is location? In an e-commerce world, the answers to these questions are increasingly uncertain and complex.

For example, the existing ad valorem tax system taxes a property's real estate value rather than its profitability. The current system assumes rents, which form the basis of commercial property values, relate directly to profitability. Rents in a regional mall are based upon profitability. For example, a jewelry store in a mall's center court may pay $75 per square foot while a family apparel store pays $20 per square foot. What really matters is occupancy cost. When occupancy costs (the total costs paid to the landlord including rent and reimbursable items such as CAM) exceed 12 percent of sales, the tenant may be headed for trouble. Higher sales permit higher occupancy costs. Indeed, appraisers often incorrectly equate real property value to the profitability of the property's business operation when the real property should be valued in fee simple in a tax appeal.

Conventional wisdom suggests strong anchors improve a center's real estate value, stabilize a property's financial statement, reduce an owner's risk and increase the price a buyer would pay for the center. For example, a Nordstrom will often bring inline tenants that would otherwise not go to the mall. A recent variant on this theme is the proliferation of mixed-use centers, which often include office, apartments and other life style uses designed to draw potential shoppers for the retail tenants. Put simply, retail sales historically relate to the center's location, trade area population, trade area household income and foot traffic, not to factors such as web presence. Additional uses also theoretically provide more stability to the project's value.

E-commerce is challenging conventional wisdom about the effect of anchors on overall value as online sales increase pressure on bricks and mortar retailers and diminish their role in overall retail sales. In February 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 2013 fourth quarter retail e-commerce sales, adjusted for seasonal variation but not for price changes, increased 16 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012, as compared to a 3.9 percent increase in total retail sales for the same period in 2013. E-commerce accounted for 5.8 percent of total sales in 2013 compared to 5.2 percent for the same period in 2012.

On a non-adjusted basis — that is, excluding sales in categories not commonly purchased online — Internet Retailer magazine estimated e-commerce accounted for 7.6 percent of total retail sales during 2013, a 6.8 percent increase from the same period in 2012. Forrester Research projects that by 2017, direct online purchases will account for approximately 10 percent of all U.S. retail sales, representing a nearly 10 percent compound annual growth rate from 2012. Looking beyond purely online purchases, Internet Retailer estimates that by 2017, 60 percent of U.S. retail sales will involve the web.

In some ways, these figures understate e-commerce's impact on bricks and mortar retailers. For example, the figures do not account for lost profitability and price pressure created by consumers who price shop online and visit a center to make a purchase. Further, how many consumers now shop on-line for groceries and either have those groceries delivered to their homes via a provider such as Amazon.com, or collect them from a drive-through checkout line?

Forrester Research predicts U.S. e-commerce spending will increase because larger retail chains will invest in omnichannel" efforts — tying together stores with the web and mobile — along with more consumers using smartphones and tablets, and what the report calls "increased comfort with web shopping."

Onmichannel marketing will likely decrease inherent real estate values and lower ad valorem taxes since e-commerce decreases the importance of bricks and mortar stores and foot traffic. If 60 percent of retail sales will involve the web by 2017, how important is location? How important are anchors?

The answers may be, "Not very much." E-commerce's impact is already evident in store closings by retailers once considered national credit or anchor tenants. In 2013, a major South Carolina grocery chain that anchored many small shopping centers closed most of its stores. Nationally, in early March 2014, RadioShack announced the closure of approximately 1,100 stores while Staples announced plans to close 225 stores. Is it coincidental that Staples is now the number 2 e-tailer behind Amazon?

Historically, the risk in leasing to a large anchor was much lower than leasing to smaller tenants. Different uses generally involve different capitalization rates, or expected rates of return relative to the purchase price. The risk involved with office leases differs from the risk of renting to national retailers. Historically, inline stores arguably should have had a higher capitalization rate than the anchor stores did, since there was more risk. This was never the case as all the department stores have credit ratings below investment grade and are larger stores and therefore have a greater risk than smaller inline stores with better credit. Most malls trade on cap rates in the 6 to 8 percent range, whereas the few department stores that were leased when sold traded in the 10 to 12 percent range. Taxing authorities traditionally only paid lip service to these risk differences in calculating one overall capitalization rate, and tended to gravitate to a lower rate thought to be inherent in the anchor. But in an increasingly online world, is the riskier tenant the inline store, or is it the anchor?

The evolving significance of anchors also raises questions about the inter-relationship between separate parcels. Unsophisticated assessors tend to ignore state laws requiring parcels be individually valued. Instead, taxing authorities value the project by grouping multiple parcels together and applying one blended capitalization rate, regardless of the multiplicity of uses and tenants. Unquestionably, inline stores and anchors have a symbiotic relationship, but how does one measure that relationship value particularly when the anchor is on a different parcel from the mall itself?

The physical location of a closed anchor in a mixed-use center can exacerbate the problem. For example, what happens when a failed anchor, located in the middle of the mall, creates parking or access issues for patients visiting medical offices? How is this impact measured?

While the solutions are still unclear, a few basic issues confronting the industry are coming into focus through the cyber static:

  • Appraisers and tax authorities need to recognize most power centers and malls are complex businesses, where anchors and inline stores depend on each other (and internet presence) for profitability.
  • The historic relationship of the capitalization rates applied to inline stores versus anchors needs to be scrutinized more closely.
  • Some jurisdictions specifically require parcels be valued individually for tax purposes. If so, how does one measure the interdependency of the tenants that comprise the center?
  • How does an owner address increased vacancies within mixed-use centers for both profitability and tax purposes?
  • How does one calculate a property's real estate value when it is part of the retailer's onmichannel sales effort?

The challenges posed to owners by e-commerce spans the gamut from development to taxes. Valuing regional malls, power centers and even local shopping centers for property tax purposes is increasingly difficult in the e-commerce era. An owner who appropriately quantifies the different and increasingly complex risks associated with these businesses is far more likely to adapt successfully to the e-commerce world, and simultaneously reduce property tax bills. Recognizing the questions and challenges posed by e-commerce is the first step in obtaining the answers.

ellison mMorris A. Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C. office of the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P., and is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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