Small town retail: is the outlook any better than the cities?

I’ve spoken numerous times about the dire state of retail, and I’m hardly alone. National urban publications have covered it, obsessing in recent months how even the Borough of Manhattan, America’s most densely populated urban settlement, is witnessing increasingly yawning gaps between its occupied storefronts on formerly bustling streets. And it’s not like the island is losing population: density remains sky-high (even by global standards) and growing, yet it still can’t seem to support all that retail space. The phenomenon, though more pronounced in American cities, isn’t isolated to them: London, with a comparable density, is suffering a proliferation of “To Let” signs in areas that, by all metrics, remain prosperous.

These featurettes are so commonplace that I don’t need to explain what’s going on. Of course the exploding popularity of online shopping is rendering conventional bricks-and-mortar obsolete. And, while web-based sales have been around since at least the late 90s (at that point when the Internet rose to a near-daily part of average American life), it still seemed like good retail centers—the most successful urban corridors and well-managed suburban malls—would survive the thinning market. I still thought there was a future for good malls as recently as early 2016, and I blogged about the ones that seemed to be holding their own amidst the plethora of middling shopping centers. Just three years later, the outlook is cloudy. With America’s former largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, having filed bankruptcy a few weeks ago (and currently finalizing a loan), it’s difficult to say if there’s any future for malls whatsoever. And even luxury brands, heretofore inoculated from the internet insurrection, have shown clear signs of struggle, manifested most heavily by Lord and Taylor’s closure of its New York flagship (another retreating retailer for Manhattan). Our metropolitan areas are likely to suffer such a glut of unneeded retail space that it could exert an impact on urban form not seen since—well, since malls helped destroy the market viability of historic town centers in the 1950s and 60s.

Research on receding retail, up to this point, has overwhelmingly focused on metropolitan centers, where the embrace of e-trends and the over-provision of shopping space is likely to be most pronounced. But what about rural America? It’s unfair and condescending to presume that they haven’t caught on to the utility of the Internet, but higher median ages and logistical challenges, coupled with an extreme ease in getting around by car and lower land costs—should cushion the blow for remote towns and their mini-malls or strip centers off the major highway. But I’m not sure that’s the case. They’ve felt the pinch too. Several years ago I featured an austere, seriously underperforming mall in Effingham, Illinois (50 miles northeast of St. Louis) and the economically depressed mining town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania hosts not one but two primarily dead malls.

And then there’s strip malls like this one, in Wytheville Virginia, about 75 miles southwest of Roanoke.

IMG_9524

Ironically, from the sign at the entrance, the unfamiliar motorist would think it’s doing pretty well. The tiles seem full with named tenants. And, by many metrics, it could be doing much worse. But let’s take a look at the conditions in and around the parking lot.Wythe Shopping Plaza parking lotBleak. It doesn’t help that we’re witnessing a giant sheet of asphalt, completely impervious except for its many cracks caused by neglect. If this were a newer shopping center, we could almost guarantee that it would be filled with grassy islands, at least a handful of trees, and probably some landscaping. And while I’ll grant that a Monday morning slightly before ten o’clock is rarely a peak time for consumers, this scene still reveals so few vehicles that one is prone to conclude that most stores aren’t open. The Memorial Day holiday could serve as an explanation, except that retailers don’t usually close on second-tier holidays because it’s a lucrative time for them. Somehow, though, I don’t perceive anyone associating the word “lucrative” with Wythe Shopping Plaza all that often. It’s anchor tenant, after all, is Dollar General.

But, unless that entrance sign is lying, the Wythe Shopping Plaza is mostly occupied. Let’s take a closer look at the tenant mix.IMG_9527A nail salon in the middle. This and eyebrow threading have become about the most common last-ditch tenants. They’re everywhere. Declining strip malls depend on them, but even upscale shopping centers will often host them in one of their smaller spaces. I’m no expert, but I suspect they’re among few services that are income elastic: both wealthy and less affluent customers will patronize them. But these and most other personal beauty and grooming specialists remain services first and foremost—not overt retail. The storefront to the left is an insurance company; Shentel to the right is a cable and high-speed Internet provider.

Let’s take a look at other corners of this strip mall.IMG_9529The Dollar General on the right, and, in the middle, a place called Bargains and More—an independently owned, direct competitor to the dollar store, which probably explains why it apparently has already closed since these photos from five months ago. To the left is a therapeutic massage studio. At another end, we witness perhaps the strongest evidence that Wythe Shopping Plaza is struggling.IMG_9530The architecture to the storefront on the right would suggest it is the anchor tenant. But a closer look doesn’t reveal any sort of big or familiar name; it’s a Surplus Property Program from the County’s Department of General Services. A public sector tenant. Odds are it’s not paying a lot of money for this large space. And, pivoting to the left—IMG_9531About the only other familiar name is Curves, the ubiquitous women’s fitness franchise, which, based on my observations in the past, does not seem terribly particular about the quality and visibility of its locations. Faded strip malls are the status quo for Curves.

The remaining tenants largely reveal an array of highly localized service providers.IMG_9532IMG_9533A credit union. Workforce development offices. Medical supply. Only one other national brand: Nationwide Insurance. And then, to the far left with the blue sign and white lettering, is what I suspect is the tenant that is most likely to fill the parking lot on a regular basis: a branch of the Virginia DMV. (Though a DMV wouldn’t be the source of those five cars—not on Memorial Day.) The sign at the front assumes a new irony, since its fullness remains completely at odds with the appearance.

Wythe Shopping Plaza entrance sign

Incidentally, some of the names fail to match the sign at the front of Wythe Shopping Plaza, suggesting the property manager can’t keep up with the tenant turnaround.

At the very least, the outparcels should reveal comparative health, right? These are the freestanding buildings that sit closest to the highway. Let’s take a look.1The architecture, in my opinion, suggests it originally was a Long John Silver’s, though perhaps it’s a bit too large, with that expansive kitchen stretching from the back. Although not a national brand, at least Tha’ Dawg House was functioning—and it appears to remain occupied to this day. As for the other outparcel—IMG_9535The physical form makes it look like a drive-through bank branch, but it was vacant. From my angle, this is surprising: banks make great tenants, reliably paying their rent each month, and banks are not to my knowledge experiencing some sort of widespread consolidation. In short, if a bank branch is vacant, it’s probably due to considerable shortcomings with the real estate itself. It may also fall under different ownership than the rest of Wythe Shopping Plaza.

IMG_9528Judging from Wythe Shopping Plaza alone, one could conclude that Wytheville isn’t in great health. And, while the town of 8,200 may not be flourishing, neither the appearance nor the demographics (income and poverty levels on par with the Virginia median) suggest something is amiss. If anything, Wytheville may be better positioned for economic growth than similarly sized towns in a fifty mile radius; after all, it sits at the junction of Interstates 77 and 81, making it a likely pit stop for motorists. But this high profile doesn’t translate to great demand for a strip mall like this one. After all, it has only one tenant that overtly sells durable goods. If anything, the conditions reinforce the struggles retail faces overall, and, in this day and age, despite the drab appearance, I would assert that Wythe Shopping Plaza is transcending these struggles. After all, it remains mostly (around 75%) occupied, and it reveals the new normal for retail nodes: service-oriented, low in curb appeal, of increasingly localized interest only. The ownership of this strip mall has adapted with the changing times, but the tenant mix bespeaks a precipitous loss in value for the property compared to the time it could support a grocery store, a mid-price women’s clothing boutique, a Hallmark shop, and a Blockbuster Video. Stlll, we’ve all seen worse, and this one at least seems as aware of the changing times as its urban counterparts. Like a true apocalypse, it reaches to the farthest corners of the land.

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6 thoughts on “Small town retail: is the outlook any better than the cities?

  1. AvatarChris B

    Think about how few times you go into a bank branch per year today, versus 20-30 years ago when you would have been depositing paychecks, applying for a loan or making loan payments, etc. There is definitely a shrinkage of bank real estate footprints associated with automated/online banking, except in newer upscale suburbs which seem to have one of every local bank brand on their main drag outlots; I think they mainly serve as a prominent billboard for the bank brand.

    So bank consolidation has been a thing for two or three decades now, and the real estate continues to evolve. Think about your hometown, where Bank One (now Chase) gobbled up the two biggest players over a 15-year period. Not infrequently the new Bank One was stuck with branches across the street from each other. Some of those have gone to other banks, but most have been adaptively reused. (Right now I am watching the conversion of a former Chase drive-thru-only building, which is 880 feet away, diagonally opposite its “branch” at Meridian St. and Meridian School Rd. The old branch building next to the drive thru location is already an accounting/tax office. The former drive-thru canopy has now been enclosed in storefront-bay manner, and I am waiting to see what goes inside. The Subway 880 feet farther up the street just closed in a larger location, so downsizing seems a possiblity…)

    Today it’s happening at the local/regional banking level. There is still some overlap of branches that has to be addressed in a merger of two small banks within a multi-county region, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the case in Wytheville.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Got it. Agreed that online banking has reduced the need for a lot of bricks-and-mortar, and we certainly don’t encounter the lines at banks that we used to. I was a teenager during the peak of the consolidations that you described, and my impression is that the banking industry sort of re-emerged after the Great Recession with a new artillery of small, regional or even local operations. It certainly doesn’t seem that the industry ever achieved the level of consolidation that, say, department stores or drug stores have experienced.

      Whether this location in Wytheville vacated because of a physical or an industry-driven consolidation, it probably wasn’t helped by the laggard state of the Wytheville Shopping Plaza nearby. As for that location you mentioned on Meridian Street, I had always wondered about that. I grew up very close by.

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      1. AvatarChris B

        Agree totally re Wytheville. The banks are like other retailers today, with new branch locations chasing higher-income residents as old leases expire or old locations seem stuck in aging commercial districts.

        It would not surprise me to see a check-cashing/payday loan office open in that sort of place (an “unbanked” and declining commercial district). They are the financial-services equivalent to your favorite downscale retailer (the big B).

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      2. AvatarUrban Prairie Schooner

        While there certainly has not been as much consolidation in the retail banking industry as in other retail sectors where there may only be a handful of meaningful players, the fact is there has been substantial consolidation and loss of banks over time. According to FDIC statistics, from 1934 to 1988 the number of US banks fluctuated around the 13,000-14,000 range, but since 1988 that number has consistently declined, to around 5450 as of this writing. (This number includes what was once known as savings and loans, aka thrifts, but not credit unions or other “nontraditional” lenders.). Bear in mind that not all of these surviving 5450 are traditional retail banks, either, as companies like Ally Bank and Goldman Sachs are counted as banks for purposes of FDIC insurance.

        The losses are mostly from loss by mergers in excess of new establishments, but also by numerous bank failures during the late 80’s-early 90s (associated with the S&L crisis) and the Great Recession years of 2008-2011. Most of the merger activity today is occurring at the regional (around $1B assets) bank level as they acquire smaller community banks to expand their footprints; most of the massive national banks (themselves largely products of mass mergers in the 80s and 90s) are apparently refraining from new acquisitions at this time.

        From my personal experience, virtually all the community and regional banks I remember from my childhood have either vanished or been merged into larger entities.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          Thanks for the comments, Schooner. I didn’t realize that nontraditional lenders excluded credit unions, which seem to be a critical component among the smaller community entities. Quite a few credit unions have fewer than 5 bricks-and-mortar locations; some have only one. I wonder if city size has any bearing on the presence of small banks with fewer than 10 branch locations–i.e., if smaller cities are less likely for their regional banks (spread across locations in a handful of cities or towns with populations less than 50,000) are less likely to get acquired than banks in mid-tier cities, like the one I grew up in. I blogged about one of these (https://dirtamericana.com/2017/08/murals-mayberry-peapack-gladstone/), and though this bank has a generous handful of locations mostly in the affluent NYC suburbs, a name like Peapack-Gladstone Bank is too unwieldy for it to likely grow to a national or even multi-regional presence.

          Then again, based on your account, these almost rural-oriented banks are getting acquired too.

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  2. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

    A payday loan site does seem reasonable here. I’m probably splitting hairs, but I’m wondering if there’s some intrinsic characteristic to typical banking real estate that keeps those sort of places from occupying former banks…primarily because I can’t think of any examples where a commercial district downgraded and the bank got replaced with payday loans. Most payday loan stores I can recall are in strip malls (no drive-thru) or another piece of downgraded real estate. I’m guessing the drive thru feature gives a property an added value that a payday loan site–along with many others–simply don’t need, and they can find a property in more or less the same geographic area that costs less. Furthermore, a payday loan/check cashing office tends to operate in an area with a low or moderate income, and most evidence indicates that Wytheville is not a struggling town…merely a town that (like most) has too much commercial real estate. If this bank property can’t find another banking tenant, it wouldn’t surprise me if it remains vacant for years, at least until the point where property values degrade so much that the drive-thru feature no longer serves as enough an amenity to warrant a price mark-up.

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