Demographic Shifts

Arguably, no property type is shaped more by demographic trends than retail. Good thing there is more data now than ever, too.

Arguably, no property type is shaped more by demographic trends than retail. Whether pursuing enclaves of population growth or targeting the preferences of certain age brackets or ethnic groups, retailers are constantly assessing population data as they craft their strategies. And they need this research now more than ever, for a multitude of reasons: to correct widespread over-retailing, compete in a crowded market or achieve success in one of the many niches that so many retailers are embracing. Good thing there is more data now than ever, too.

Today’s big demographic shifts make this a fascinating and critical time to study these trends. Baby Boomers are beginning to make their much-discussed transition to seniors status. The centuries-old white majority in this country is on the way to becoming a minority; meanwhile, several of today’s minority groups are raising their profiles through organic growth and immigration. Add to that the huge new-graduate pool, a move back to urban centers and to coastal areas and the Sun Belt, and you end up with an intricate web of changes. To further complicate matters, this array of groups exhibits distinct preferences for retail, as well as for work and lifestyle. Yet retail spending patterns within a given group are by no means uniform around the country. Layer on top the country’s ongoing economic bifurcation, and you start to see the difficulty of relating data to retail leasing, investment and development decisions.

As retailers refine their use of research, they are also putting it to work more effectively. Not only can they uncover hard-to-find new locations, they are varying their approach to both new and existing sites, introducing fresh concepts tailored to a location or a slice of the population. A familiar example is the scaled-down model used to adapt the big-box store to dense urban settings; another is the variety of new formats that mall owners continue to experiment with, as Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services Inc. pointed out in its annual survey of retail real estate.

Data analysis is not an exact science, and all too often, retailers lack the discipline to reap its benefits. Overexpansion repeatedly precedes massive store closings; saturation of niches gives way to mergers, bankruptcies and brand shutdowns. The consumer electronics sector offers a recent case in point. As part of a plan to save $800 million by 2016, Best Buy Co. announced plans in March to close 50 stores—a sign that even the 2009 demise of its chief competitor, Circuit City Stores Inc., wasn’t enough to open up the market.

But the increased precision and volume of data do provide a level of insight that gives retailers—and the owners of properties that house them—a significant advantage as the market slowly turns in a positive direction and they hone their plans for the next cycle. The coming years promise to be dramatic for retail real estate; the need to identify untapped opportunity in a saturated market will make them challenging. And the ability to track demographic trends—and address them creatively—will make them more productive.