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The next wave to hit Main Street

Call it the great retail wash. A wave of defaults, bankruptcies and evictions expected in cities across the U.S. is poised to remake the retail landscape across the country, but there may be some upside for consumers and small businesses.

Why it matters: Rather than an overnight descent into a collection of urban wastelands full of Starbucks, Amazon fulfillment centers, Chase bank branches and nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting retail apocalypse may just mean that, in major U.S. cities, less is more.

What it means: The world after the COVID apocalypse will likely include fewer malls and the end of some American business mainstays. But experts also expect it to bring lower rents, cleaner buildings and the opportunity for companies that have invested in quality to outperform.

What we're hearing: "I do think there is going to be less need for retail in particular as we get more familiar and comfortable with online consumption," said Brett Theodos, senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

  • "That doesn't mean it's going away — there's still an experiential element to it — but there will be a decreasing need for brick-and-mortar establishments than there was before the pandemic," he said.
  • "That's going to play out on Main Street as well as the big corporates."

"In New York, retail prices have gotten very high and we think there is room for an adjustment, which we hope will open up opportunities for new small businesses, digital brands looking to break into brick-and-mortar, and new experiential concepts," said Jake Elghanayan, principal and senior vice president at TF Cornerstone.

Many cities already have far too big of a retail footprint per capita, said Sara Doelger, principal at Argosy Real Estate Partners in Wayne, Pa., and chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Commercial and Retail Development Council.

  • "There will always be a need for brick-and-mortar because that's how humans work. Will there be less of a need for it? Yes," Doelger said.
  • The immediate impact will increase building vacancies and put downward pressure on rents. "This may give tenants more power in lease negotiations," she said.

As stores close, at least some square footage will likely be repurposed for industrial uses, e-commerce last-mile facilities (think Amazon logistics centers) or self-storage companies.

  • Vacant retail sites are already being converted to e-commerce warehouses and fulfillment centers, per commercial real estate giant CBRE — and the pandemic is accelerating that trend.

Between the lines: More living space should be created as people move from big urban city centers to suburban settings and smaller, less expensive cities, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.

Urban buildings will change. More housing could also open up as big box stores and strip malls inhabited by national retailers are razed and rezoned for community use.

  • And new or renovated buildings could upgrade ventilation systems to both save energy and sweep germs away.

"The big question for cities is how many establishments are there, and how much space do those establishments need?" Theodos said. "There's a big hit on both."

The last word: There have been a lot of headlines about struggling businesses, but a limited number of liquidations or outright closures, notes Alan Todd, U.S. head of commercial mortgage backed securities research at Bank of America.

  • "Everybody wants to see how this is going to shake out, but it takes a long time."
  • "There are a lot of ways that lenders and borrowers can work together to alleviate pressure points, and there’s a very long fuse on some of this stuff that takes a while to shake out and that’s what people need to think about."

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