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Rapid change in retail sector will create winners as well as losers

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Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

The retail market has taken a pounding from the pandemic, but rapid change will create winners as well as losers.

For an insight into the current issues, I chatted with Larry Brennan, a veteran of the Irish retail market, and head of European retail agency for Savills.

There is no definitive pattern to how retailers are coping across Europe, he says.

Each country has had a different timescale for locking down and re-opening, with varying restrictions on travel distances, store sizes allowed to re-open, and wide-ranging regulations regarding capacities, trying on clothes etc.

Nor is there consistency in the approach taken by landlords to tenants who have been unable to trade.

Some landlords are allowing rent holidays, some will negotiate - for example, the swapping of a future break-clause for a rent reduction - and others take the view that governments are supporting tenants' businesses, but not landlords, so why aren't you paying your rent?

Online retailing has had a massive boost, as more shoppers were forced online, such as cocooners. The question is, how much of that spend will come back to re-opened shops?

The food and grocery sector has been the big winner, with sales up 25pc to 30pc.

Local shops have done very well, and my local fruit and vegetable shop and butchers are reporting trade steadily at 25pc above pre-pandemic levels.

That has been partly due to the restrictions on travel, partly because people feel safer in smaller shops, and there has been a trend towards supporting local. Will that trend continue into the future?

Convenience stores have had a huge boost. Habits, apparently, take three months to become engrained, and as the lockdown eases, it will be interesting to see how many of us revert to driving past our local shops in order to go to large-scale shopping centres.

Larry Brennan reports that his teams are still very busy across Europe, with new mandates and searches for properties.

He says that there are four channels bucking the trend:

1) The "AthLeisure" sector is booming - that is fitness clothing, exercise equipment, bicycles etc.

Global retailers selling online into Europe, such as Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, are acquiring stores and, this week, Savills won a mandate to secure stores in Europe from a US retailer.

2) There has been a surge in demand for physical stores from online retailers that have traded well in the pandemic, partly because they see value and a mix of "bricks and clicks" as optimal. Online electronics retailer Coolblue has just taken a 2,000 sq m store in central Brussels.

3) The technology/consumer goods sector has performed well and is augmented now in Europe by strong demand, for example, from Chinese mobile phone companies, who have seen Asian markets recover well.

Another driver is the roll-out of electric car showrooms.

4) Luxury goods markets have rebounded strongly and the brands are pushing ahead with deals in Europe.

Across Europe, the most damage is being done in the "high street" fashion sectors and for large-scale shopping centres too big for catchment areas reduced by travel restrictions.

Retailing will continue to evolve, and we should support Irish retailers, particularly online. I've also bought shares in the makers of cardboard boxes.

Irish Independent