Between the first two quarters of 2020, online retail sales increased by more than 36%. Stores across the U.S. shuttered as coronavirus swept across the country, forcing consumers indoors and accelerating the digitalization of many businesses. “There has been a skyrocketing trend in terms of how businesses have jumped on digital and social media, in terms of interacting with consumers. Many experts in the field across the country and other parts of the world see this as the future, it’s not just now [during the pandemic],” says Khaled Aboulnasr, chair of the marketing department at FGCU’s Lutgert College of Business. “Digital has been strong, but it will be 100 times stronger moving forward.”
In Southwest Florida, where tourism dollars dictate a high percentage of retail sales, what does this mean as shops are entering both the tourism and holiday season? According to Coresight Research, as many as 25,000 stores may close this year—nearly 60% of which are in malls. Coronavirus isn’t the only cause for declining sales, but it’s a factor that sped the demise of some brands that were already ailing. At the moment, there are about 1,000 malls still in operation across the country. But, in an article on CNBC, retail consultant and former Macy’s executive Jan Kniffen predicts that by 2021, a third of them will cease to exist.
The owner of popular mall jewelry brands Kay, Zales and Jared is closing nearly 400 of its shops; Macy’s plans to shut 125 stores over the next three years; J.Crew, Neiman Marcus and Pier 1 Imports have filed for bankruptcy. JCPenney also filed for bankruptcy protection in May but, in September, the national retailer announced a deal with Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Group that could save hundreds of its stores. Locally, Simon owns Coconut Point in Estero and Brookfield owns Coastland Center mall in Naples.
Around Southwest Florida, the Miami-based parent company for CMX Cinébistro also filed for bankruptcy just as the construction of its cinema was nearing completion on the former Sears footprint at Coastland Center. Pre-pandemic, Lucky’s Market filed Chapter 11 in January and closed all of its area grocery stores, missing out on the sales boost experienced by other grocers during the lockdown.
One of the most surprising losses to the region this year was the shuttering of the Nordstrom department store at Waterside Shops in Naples. The nearly 80,000-square- foot, two-story store had anchored the upscale outdoor mall since 2008 and was the national retailer’s first location in the region.
Another retail surprise was Stein Mart closing all of its stores nationwide, which included four locations between Collier and Lee counties. Pier 1 also closed all of its home décor stores, which included five regional anchor spots for the more than 50-year-old chain.
“Most of the retailers we’ve seen exiting are large-scale retailers who have exited multiple markets,” says Justin Thibaut, president of Fort Myers-based real estate firm LSI Companies. “Those businesses that were on rocky ground to start, that were in heavy growth modes and had their neck out with too much financing to facilitate growth, those are the ones who will probably be teeter-tottering on whether or not they’ll be able to survive.”
What is happening in Southwest Florida largely echoes what is happening across the country, Thibaut added. “Now, it’s a question of how much longer we are in a situation where consumers are afraid to go shopping in general retail areas,” he says. “It’s evident by walking around in any retail strips or open-air shopping malls in the area that traffic is down.”
In July, Collier County commissioners voted to make masks mandatory in businesses and public buildings, and indoor malls such as Edison Mall in Fort Myers have updated their code of conduct to add in coronavirus-specific safety measures: encouraging social distancing of at least 6 feet and face coverings; asking shoppers to avoid gathering in groups or moving tables; and limiting the number of guests in each store, which is easier to do at the moment considering the reduced number of visitors. “This is a time when brands and businesses need to focus on being there for the consumer, not necessarily to sell, but to show they are supporting them throughout this pandemic,” Aboulnasr says. “What’s important to consumers has changed; right now, it’s all about safety, health, protection—that’s what retailers should focus on.”
Following safety measures and protocols, stores are attempting to entice customers back through their doors by offering sales, new outdoor dining and retail to-go curbside pick-up programs. At outdoor regional mall Coconut
Point, stores are greeting customers from outside to reduce the amount of indoor contact. “Generally, most shops are doing a great job of doing anything they can to keep their doors open,” Thibaut says. “The big thing here is that retail sales are driven by tourism, and since the season was cut short, we didn’t have as many visitors. Lee County typically doubles in size during season, and until we start getting continued tourism, I think we’re going to see depressed sales.”
Another factor affecting sales is the current unemployment rate in the region, which is above 13%. Many federal unemployment benefits are now expiring, and people’s concerns are going from “I know I don’t have enough money to cover my rent” to “I know I don’t have enough money to cover my rent; I need to get a job.”
“If you look at the situation from a consumer perspective, they’re adjusting to a new demand profile,” says LSI Companies Market Research Director Nelson Taylor. “It’s a lot to ask for people to go out and spend money when they don’t know where their next check is coming from.”
Florida businesses were permitted to return to 100% capacity in late September. Shops in weaker positions may have been weeded out, but that leaves more room for new growth. “A lot of businesses that have chosen to leave or closed down stores already had the writing on the wall before that
happened. This was the final coup de grâce that pushed them out,” Thibaut says, adding that LSI Companies is now seeing downward pressure on rent.
According to John Scherlacher, area marketing director for Edison Mall and Port Charlotte Town Center, 97% of stores at Edison Mall in Fort Myers are still open (and more than 60 shops are locally owned). While malls in other parts of the country are seeing a dip in occupancy, Edison Mall is welcoming a handful of new and soon-to-debut tenants, including Carter’s OshKosh, The Lemon Drop boutique and arcade-style target shooting experience Jungle Range. The Twisted Crab restaurant is currently under construction, and in late August, holistic health shop The Curious Cauldron opened. “Although a lot of people utilize an online marketplace, there’s still a heavy demand in our market for folks that want to get out and see and shop,” Thibaut says. “The question is how well can these small shops capitalize on an opportunity like this while still putting in safety measures and not overcrowding their stores. There’s certainly an opportunity here, but it’s a matter of how they execute.”
Lauren Wilson, a buyer at locally owned boutique Marissa Collections, which has been a Naples institution since 1975, said they’re optimistic as they head into the end of the year. Despite a slower social calendar, clients still want to get dressed for their days, but in a “more elevated, casual way.” Just like the fashion industry has made adjustments to its markdown schedule and reset the calendar to sell fall/winter in the actual season (instead of six months in advance), she’s finding that locals also want to buy and wear pieces that can undergo transitions along with the weather.
The pandemic helped push forward contactless modes of shopping, from e-commerce to curbside delivery. Big retailers have already adopted these practices, and offer services and incentives such as next-day shipping. The pandemic has only accelerated a longer-term shift in how consumers buy things in general, and “it’s not looking good for brick-and-mortar,” Aboulnasr says. “Moving forward, shopping will never be the same again; people will continue to shop online. Even smaller retailers, they will ultimately jump on that bandwagon either selling online or home delivery. These trends are becoming more mainstream, and while bigger retailers may have started it, these trends will make their way through the entire market.”
Even Black Friday, which already had a Cyber Monday component, may go digital this year so that big-box stores including Target and Walmart can avoid crowds and the safety concerns that come along with them. Businesses are already pivoting to accommodate more online traffic, and some are starting Black Friday-type sales earlier this year. “It’s going to be a different version of Black Friday [this year]—a more orderly situation than it has been in the past,” says Thibaut. “But mom-and-pop stores have an opportunity here to capitalize.”
According to LSI Commercial’s research, Southwest Florida is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. From 2018 to 2019, the region (Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties) experienced a 2% gain in population (around 26,203 people), which is four times the national population growth rate and almost double Florida’s.
Florida makes up 5% of the U.S.’s GDP, making it the fourth-largest state economy in the country, according to LSI Commercial. In 2019, the retail trade industry accounted for 8.7% of Florida’s real GDP contribution, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Local unemployment is over 13% in Southwest Florida as of April 2020.
According to CoStar Analytics’ analysis of Q2 2020, the retail market in Collier County has a 95.2% physical occupancy; Lee County has 94.4%; Charlotte County has 96.5%.