I love talking to people who’ve been bitten by the “retail bug” like me, so it was a pleasure sitting down with my friend and Colliers colleague, Senior Retail Advisor Jerry White. Jerry is one of our go-to retail experts, a highly respected professional and a true industry veteran. Jerry recently participated as a judge for the prestigious ICSC VIVA Global Design and Development Awards Program and previously served as an ICSC Trustee and Chairman of the ICSC Foundation.
ANJEE SOLANKI: Jerry, tell us a little bit about why you chose retail as your area of specialization.
JERRY WHITE: I didn’t really choose retail—I got drafted into retail. We had a family development business, Copaken, White & Blitt, that was working on a shopping center called Rockaway Townsquare (which still exists!). I became the small shop tenant coordinator for the opening of the center. It was a three-year effort, with two years living out of a hotel room on site. I caught this crazy retail bug after seeing consumers in the shopping center and seeing how it operated.
From there, I went to Hickory Point Mall in Decatur-Forsyth, IL. I did the same work and assisted in the general construction of the shopping center. When that was done, I started my leasing career and from there I went on to develop multiple shopping centers.
I find retail engaging. There’s always the next new concept, the next new retailer. It’s fun to go to other cities and see what other people are doing. See what the developer of the day is doing. I like what you’ve got to do to make retail work. It captures my imagination.
ANJEE: It’s funny, because I kind of grew up the same way in retail. I fell into it and the more I got involved, the more I loved it because the end result is something that’s tangible. You can tell whether it worked because the customers tell you how they feel based on how they shop. Speaking of shoppers—how do you think the leasing of malls is different today compared to when you were doing it?
JERRY: In the mid-’70s and ’80s, malls were pretty much the only game in town for retail. Today, you have a few dominant “A” malls and then you have a lot of B, C and D malls that are struggling. When I first started in the business, you could call up Edison Brothers and make four or five deals; you could call the Casual Corner group and they had four or five deals; you could work something out with The Limited for four or five deals. Pretty soon you were starting to fill up easily. Plus, malls were really designed for the size of stores that were being built in those days.
Today, there’s still a dominant shopping center or two in the larger metropolitan markets, but it’s not like it was. I’m based in Kansas City, and at one time we probably had seven or eight enclosed malls that were profitable. Today, there are only two traditional enclosed malls. People don’t have the time to go to the big mall, except maybe on the weekends.
ANJEE: What do you think landlords are doing differently, regardless of the asset type?
JERRY: The whole notion of food in a mall has changed considerably, which has major implications for landlords. When the first food courts were built, they were at the end of a long corridor facing the parking lot. It wasn’t integrated. The food court has evolved into today’s food hall.
Sit-down restaurants have evolved, too. Houlihan’s and T.G.I Friday’s used to be the hot thing. There was no “fusion.” There was an Italian restaurant, a steakhouse and a lot of “fern-bar” restaurants. The shrinking of the world has certainly affected our eating habits.
ANJEE: Definitely! We recently released our latest Retail Spotlight Report and it’s all about the way food has become the retail anchor. We also looked at the shift toward specialization that’s happening in retail. What are some of the more unique retailers that you like or that you find very interesting?
JERRY: I admire Costco to this day as one of the ultimate retailers. I started way back with Sol Price when he had a few Price Clubs (which later merged with Costco) and Sol was quite a pioneer. The execution, the ability to control prices, the happy employees, seeing the diversity of people that shop there and having it all under one roof—it’s amazing what Costco can consistently deliver. And they have a promise to the customer not to mark anything up over 14 percent. Each time you go to Costco there’s something that wasn’t there before or something that’s at such a good price that you kind of shake your head and think, “I can’t not buy it.”
ANJEE: My next question relates to the changing role of department stores. Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney are all struggling. What does this mean?
JERRY: It is a very curious phenomenon to me. About 15–20 years ago, when everything became computerized, the department stores lost their freshness. I remember when department stores used to be the logistics distribution point for a lot of young, upcoming designers. Buyers were empowered to go out and find the next Tommy Bahama, Tommy Hilfiger or Ellen Tracy and bring them into the stores. But computers commoditized a lot of the business and caused department stores to lose their customer core. I think the stores lost their touch—it wasn’t so much the physical space at fault as much as the inability to customize.
Customers got used to having smaller specialty stores that were tailored to what they liked and wanted. Or back to Costco—while they might sell only one type of item in a specific category, if they’ve got the best product at a great price, it’s going to keep you coming back, right?
I also think there’s a lack of new fashion names being sold in department store venues. They used to have buyers who were working Seventh Avenue or going to Paris or Munich to find the next Kate Spade. When department stores decided to go to private label because they could make more profit, they hurt themselves by cutting out the designer, in my humble view of the world.
ANJEE: Jerry, thank you for the insights into consumers, malls and all things retail. It is wonderful to speak with someone who’s so passionate about retail and I always learn so much talking with my colleagues!
Anjee continues to be an insatiable collector of all things retail. She’s a student of culture living next door to future shoppers, whose fleeting trends constantly change the retail landscape … driving retailers, landlords and developers crazy!