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Dead Malls And Boutique Bra Fittings: The Reinvention of Retail

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The way we shop will never be the same. And if you want a glimpse of what the future will look like, visit two malls on opposite ends of Los Angeles.

The first, Westfield Century City, sits just west of Beverly Hills. After a $1 billion makeover last year, the relaunched shopping center features VIP elevators, a Hermés-branded laundromat and a Tesla dealership. In the garage underneath, a “frictionless” valet service scans the license plates of big spenders and displays their name over their spot.

The second, Hawthorne Plaza Shopping Center, is just 12 miles away. It has been abandoned for 19 years and declining even longer, a casualty of the shrinking local aerospace sector. Every few years, a plan to revitalize the shopping center surfaces, then dissolves. It was going to become a “lifestyle center,” then an outlet mall, then simply demolished. So far, nothing has come to fruition. For now, it’s a part-time drone racing course and a filming location for HBO’s post-apocalyptic “Westworld.”

These malls ― and the bifurcation they represent ― exemplify two transformations remaking the retail sector. In strong markets, booming neighborhoods and wealthy enclaves, stores are transitioning from goods to services and from commodities to luxuries. Since 2013, as department store sales have plummeted, high-end retailers have shown steady growth. “Class A” malls — the ones with high-end retail, central locations and valet parking — boast rising sales and rosy forecasts.

The much-discussed ‘death of retail’ is, in truth, a reinvention.

In shrinking towns and poor neighborhoods, on the other hand, national brands are retreating, existing stores are struggling and vacancy rates are rising. Around one-third of American malls have shuttered, and another 25 percent are expected to close by 2022. The ones left are so desperate for customers that they’re offering wave machines and burlesque dancers.

And the trends behind this transformation are only beginning: Online sales made up just 13 percent of retail spending in 2017, but are growing five times faster than brick-and-mortar sales. According to one estimate, nearly twice as many retailers went out of business last year than at the height of the financial crisis — and suburban retailers, especially big-box stores and aging malls, are leading the way into the abyss.

But the much-discussed “death of retail” is, in truth, a reinvention. In expanding cities, stores are overhauling the way they look, function and interact with customers. Shrinking exurbs are transforming ailing spaces into new purposes. And in both, local leaders are deciding what they want their cities to look like in the future.   

The bicycle brand Rapha added coffee, events and a monthly membership to attract high-end customers.


Bloomberg via Getty Images

The bicycle brand Rapha added coffee, events and a monthly membership to attract high-end customers.

In Strong Markets, A Shift From Goods To Services  

Call it the Apple Store-ification of shopping. In every sector of the market, retailers have realized they need to give customers a reason to leave the house, something more interactive than just pulling a product off the shelf.

Some Eddie Bauer stores, for example, offer room-sized “ice boxes” where customers can test out their heavy duty jackets. Target launched a pop-up holiday store in 2015 that featured, among other things, a stuffed-animal selfie wall, a life-sized Etch-a-Sketch and a Willy Wonka-inspired paint job. Pop-up shops in San Francisco and New York offer boutique bra fittings, custom monograms and professional photographers. Nordstrom’s “Local”  storefront in LA offers beer, wine, personalized shoppers and custom tailoring. Customers choose the clothes they like in advance, then visit the store to try them on.

Some companies are blowing up the retail model entirely. Samsung’s 837 store in New York City has a test kitchen, an art gallery, a cafe and a multimedia studio. It doesn’t, however, have any Samsung products for sale.

“We’re not seeing brick-and-mortar go away,” said Brad Koszuta, a senior associate for McMillanDoolittle, a retail consulting firm. “They’re just creating more ways to interact with the brand in person.”

What Samsung’s store and others like it represent, Koszuta said, is the increased importance of marketing, store experience and entertainment. The types of products consumers are most likely to buy online are bulk, repeatable and undifferentiated — things like diapers, pet food and laundry detergent. “People will still shop for things they want more of a relationship with,” Koszuta said, “so retailers are trying to form those relationships.”

This is why, he says, “digital native” brands like Warby Parker, Bonobos and Trunk Club are opening retail stores: Letting customers try on products in person is a way to improve loyalty and boost word of mouth. It’s also why Amazon, often fingered as the assassin of brick-and-mortar retailers, is becoming one. The online retailer has established five Amazon Go stores in Seattle and Chicago and purchased the nationwide grocery chain Whole Foods.

Samsung's flagship Manhattan store offers personalized experiences, but no hard sells. 


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Samsung’s flagship Manhattan store offers personalized experiences, but no hard sells. 

The renewed emphasis on experiences also explains why so many new retail business models have appeared in recent years. From bike shops to shoe stores, existing retailers have redesigned themselves as clubs, events spaces and education providers. Yoga, SoulCycle, CrossFit and other boutique gyms have driven the fitness industry from $8 billion in sales to $26 billion since 1995. Walk-in and urgent-care clinics like CareNow and CityMD have taken over storefronts once occupied by Blockbusters and American Apparels.

This transition, though, comes with significant growing pains for the companies that can’t pivot to a higher-income clientele. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a think tank focused on community development, one in five independent retailers in the United States went out of business between 2005 and 2015.

Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the think tank, said the number of new businesses has fallen by two-thirds since 1980 and that local tax receipts are falling as online spending drives customers to national brands.

But, Mitchell said, while the shift is affecting the entire retail sector, local mom-and-pop stores may in fact be better positioned to survive it than generic national brands.

“Independent retailers have a few things going for them, like expertise about the products they’re selling and deep connections to their communities,” she said. “In the age of Amazon, there’s little reason to go to Target. But there are still reasons to go to a local toy shop or an independent bookstore.”

As cities grow and change, Mitchell said, the most resilient retailers won’t be deep-pocketed startups or national brands. They will be the smaller stores and neighborhood institutions that have been there for years.

“If you’re letting your streets be taken over by chain stores, then you’re doomed,” she said.  Many of those companies aren’t going to make it. Your best bet as a city is to support independent businesses — neither Amazon nor the chains can match that. I’d bet on a local bookstore any day over Barnes & Noble.” 

One-third of the malls in America have already gone out of business.


Richard Wellenberger via Getty Images

One-third of the malls in America have already gone out of business.

In Weak Markets, Learning To Shrink Sustainably

But not every city is a growing metropolis or a roaring boomtown. Dozens of cities have lost population since the Great Recession. Smaller towns and poorer neighborhoods still struggle to attract well-paying jobs. Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, said that in these markets, the story of the next 10 years will be about managing decline.

The first option for these cities is converting existing retail to new purposes. Nashville’s 100 Oaks Mall, for example, has given its entire second floor over to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They give you one of those vibrating pagers, like at a restaurant, so you can go downstairs and shop while you’re waiting for your lab results,” Dunham-Jones said. “It’s a lot nicer than sitting and reading magazines.”

Hospitals aren’t the only retrofit for retail graveyards. A one-time mini-mall in Los Angeles, for instance, is now Camino Nuevo Charter Academy elementary school. The former Mayfield Mall in Mountain View, California, hosts 500,000 square feet of Google office space. Hickory Hollow Mall in Tennessee is now an ice rink, and Cleveland’s Randall Park Mall, once the largest in America, is slated to reopen as an Amazon fulfillment center.

The second option for redeveloping retail spaces in weaker markets is converting them not to one new use, but many. Outside of Memphis, the Lakeland Factory Outlet Mall is being relaunched as the “Lake District” — a mixed-use development featuring homes, hotels and stores. Another former mall in Port Orchard, Washington, houses a church, a radio station, a karate school and two dozen units of mini-storage.

“You’re turning a mall into a neighborhood,” said Ronald Friedman, the co-head of retail and consumer products for Marcum LLP, an advisory services firm. “It has living space, office space, restaurants, gyms and retail. It’s a place you want to spend your day.”

Friedman points out that as the demographics of the country change, the question of what to do with America’s emptied-out suburban infrastructure will take on a new relevance. Some former retail sites have already become senior centers, putting apartments, shops and services for residents in one place. Others, seeing projections that three-quarters of the demand for new homes by 2025 will be from single, childless professionals, are adding “micro-lofts” on top of, or within, struggling malls and big-box stores.

But some sites simply don’t have the demand to justify a relaunch. In cities with falling populations, Dunham-Jones said, revitalizing old retail spaces could lure residents and customers from other neighborhoods. “If a mall died because there was another mall not too far away, it might be worth redeveloping the property as something else,” she said. “But if a mall died because the steel mill closed, you’re not going to bring it back with urban, yuppie apartments and fancy restaurants.”

For those cases, Dunham-Jones recommends “re-greening”: demolish the structure, scrape up the parking lot and bring back the nature underneath it. As climate change brings more severe storms, she said, cities will need drainage capacity more than they will need another Panera Bread. One of the earliest examples of this model was the Phalen Shopping Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a dilapidated mall was torn down to resurface the wetlands paved over decades previously. More recently, Seattle dug underneath a mall parking lot to resurface a creekbed.

“If it’s done well,” Dunham-Jones said, “a park can attract development around it, so it becomes a win-win.”

In some cities, ailing retailers have been rebuilt as compact, walkable neighborhoods. In others, they have been transformed


geogif via Getty Images

In some cities, ailing retailers have been rebuilt as compact, walkable neighborhoods. In others, they have been transformed into parks and wetlands.

It’s Up to Cities To Decide What The Future Of Retail Will Look Like

Regardless of whether a city is shrinking or growing, though, the future of retail is more of a political question than it might seem.

Emily Talen, an urbanism researcher at the University of Chicago, points out that in strong markets, cities can defend their independent stores from displacement and safeguard their neighborhoods against national brands.  

“A lot of retailers do have the ability to outlast Amazon,” she said. “But cities need to be proactive to help them survive.”

There’s lots of things cities can do to protect local stores as the retail market moves online, Talen said. They can update zoning ordinances to reduce parking requirements and legalize stores in residential zones. Cities can give grants to small business owners, stabilize their rents or help them purchase their storefronts. Or change their procurement practices to buy goods and services from local retailers. In Santa Barbara, California, where the primary retail street now has a vacancy rate over 30 percent, city leaders are waiving fees and auditioning entrepreneurs to set up pop-up shops. Other areas are charging landlords a fee for every month they allow stores to sit vacant.

“We can create the kinds of neighborhoods people value,” said Alex Baca, the engagement director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a D.C.-area advocacy group. Grants for small businesses, she says, are often dwarfed by subsidies for suburban infrastructure and tax incentives for chain stores. “Everyone wants to keep dollars in the local community and create walkable neighborhoods. But we don’t see politicians passing policies to promote them.”

The same principle applies to the suburbs. Instead of enticing faraway corporations to take over their abandoned malls or rescue their ailing big-box stores, these areas can take advantage of the communities they already have.

Plaza Fiesta on the outskirts of Atlanta, for example, which failed as a traditional mall and then as an outlet, has found new life as an immigrant market and community hub. The mall rents booths to local entrepreneurs, hosts a yearly Mexican Independence Day celebration and provides a venue for organizing against federal immigration policy.  

“Plaza Fiesta is a beloved place,” Dunham-Jones said. “The places that have less money and can’t attract the big chains are often better at conserving the local community.”

Plus, Dunham-Jones said, cheap rents are the world’s greatest catalyst for creativity. An abandoned Walmart in Texas is now the world’s largest one-story library. Another became an indoor race track. An events company in Reading, U.K., uses an old retail site to host fake zombie attacks, hiring actors to shuffle down corridors and charging customers $200 to spend the day shooting them.

So, in many ways, it’s up to cities to decide whether the future of retail will be a death or a reinvention. “The demise of small businesses has been predicted consistently for decades,” said Nathan Jensen, a researcher at the University of Texas-Austin who specializes in state and local development. “First it was shopping malls, then it was Walmart, now it’s Amazon.”

What cities can do, he said, is go back to basics. Instead of enticing national chains, help local businesses grow. Instead of reaching out to tech giants, reach down to striving entrepreneurs and struggling local businesses.

“Become a city where businesses can thrive and people want to live,” he said. “And let Amazon and Target fight amongst themselves.”

This is part of our five-story series spotlighting the current state of retail in America.

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11-Step Guide to Buying A House

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Purchasing a home is likely going to be one of the largest purchases you will make in your lifetime, which is why it is so important to follow the right steps when starting on your home-buying journey to ensure that the entire process goes smoothly from start to finish!

We’ve put together a step-by-step guide to buying a home, to help you get off on the right foot when it comes to buying a home. Click the download button below to download these steps in PDF form.

1. Decide to buy a home

Make sure you are ready both financially and emotionally!

2. Get Pre-Approved

Work with a mortgage broker or your bank. They will work with you on what you require to submit an application. Once approved, this will determine how much you can afford to spend on a home.

3. REALTOR® Consultation

Work with a RE/MAX agent to help guide you through the process. The right agent will discuss your price range, ideal locations, current market conditions and much more!

4. Start Your Search

Your REALTOR® will get you information on new homes that meet your criteria as soon as they’re listed. They’ll work with you and for you to ensure you find your dream home.

5. Current Market Conditions

Your experienced RE/MAX agent is a valuable resource as you consider different properties. They will be there when you have questions regarding the homes you’re interested in – they can tell you what is a good deal, and when to walk away.

6. Make an Offer

Your REALTOR® will help create your offer tailored to your needs including the right subject clauses down to the closing date that works best for you.

7. Negotiate

You may receive a counter offer but don’t be worried! RE/MAX agents will negotiate for you to ensure you get the best possible price for the house you love!

8. Accepted Offer

It’s crunch time! The next few weeks are busy as you need to schedule and remove every one of your subject clauses by the specified date. You’ll likely need to schedule an inspection, appraisal, financing approval, and several others. You will also need to provide a deposit to put down on the home. The deposit will be a pre-determined amount given in-trust to your REALTOR® to show the sellers you are committed to this home. Don’t worry, that money goes towards the purchase of said home if all goes well! This is a busy time but be sure to reach out to your RE/MAX agent if you have any questions or are unsure about next steps.

9. Subject Removal

Once you have completed all your subject clauses, and everything went smooth, it is time for you to sign on the dotted line and consider your new home to be yours (almost!).

10. Official Documents

You will need to provide your RE/MAX agent with your preferred lawyer or notary to have the official title transferred into your name. You will meet with the lawyer or notary in person to sign all the legal documents before you move in. This typically happens a few days before you take possession of your new home.

11. Move In!

Congratulations, you are officially a homeowner! The date pre-determined by you is your move-in day! You can now move into your new home. Your RE/MAX agent will be there ready and waiting to hand you the keys. Enjoy!

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Know When to Rent ‘Em, Know When to Buy ‘Em

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We’re told it’s always better to buy than rent. Everyone—from our parents to the banks to the government—encourages us to buy, buy, buy our homes.

But times have changed, and I dare say that these authority figures might be slightly out of touch. The jaw-droppingly high cost of real estate in big cities is encouraging millennials to rent instead of own, causing homeownership rates to drop. At 30 years old, 50.2% of millennials own homes versus 55% of baby boomers at the same age. As a millennial homeowner, I can’t help but wonder if I’m generationally displaced.

There’s an old misconception out there about renting that needs to be addressed. You’re not “throwing away your money” if you’re renting. While that familiar axiom might be true sometimes, there are plenty of circumstances in which it does actually make more sense to rent than buy.

You Might Choose to Rent If…

…You Invest What You Save

Renting tends to come with lower carrying costs than owning. Typically, all you’ll have to worry about paying as a renter is, well, the rent (clearly) and perhaps a share of utilities. This leaves you with extra monthly cash to invest, which can ultimately put you on even financial footing or better with a homeowner.

As always, there’s a familiar caveat here: You need to be financially disciplined for this strategy to pay off. One mistake I see a lot is that those who rent tend to fall prey to something called ‘lifestyle inflation.’ Rather than investing what they save as renters, they just rent nicer apartments, eat at fancier restaurants, and put more money into their wardrobe than their RRSP. But this money vacuum can be easily avoided by:

1. Budgeting to find out how much you have left over to invest each month after factoring out all your expenses, then;

2. Funneling that leftover money directly into your investments. Some robo-advisors, like Wealthsimple, allow you to do this automatically via pre-authorized contributions, which set recurring transfers from your chequing account into your investment portfolio, at whatever amount and interval you choose.

…You Have Rent Control, aka the Urban Holy Grail

Depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to benefit from the urban miracle known as rent control. That means your landlord can only increase your rent by the rate of inflation, which in turn keeps your cost of living way down and leaves you with more money to invest. In Canada, rent control is now implemented in most big cities like Toronto and Vancouver (although not in Montreal).

…You Have a Mobile Lifestyle

Renting makes it easier to move; if you’d like to relocate it’s usually as simple as giving your landlord 60 days written notice. But when you own a home you’re more tied down, and the obligation to be near your property may prevent you from chasing new adventures in faraway lands. I once turned down a fantastic job opportunity in Dallas, Texas for this very reason.

…You’re on a Tight Budget

Renting tends to be more affordable than buying in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver. I know, I know, renting is still unreasonably pricey in certain neighborhoods. But buying in those same areas can be arm-and-a-leg expensive.

When you rent, all you have to come up with is the first and last month’s rent; no need to scrimp and save to pull together a massive down payment on a house, which, incidentally, will take you two to four times longer to save than it did your parents.

And homeownership leads to a lot of other costs aside from mortgage payments. When you buy real estate, you’ll need to pay closing costs, which typically add up to between 1.5%–4% of the property’s purchase price and can include a home inspection fee, real estate lawyer fee, land transfer taxes, and homeowners insurance (sometimes you’ll have to fork over an entire year’s worth of home insurance as one lump sum).

There’s also the elephant in the room that nobody likes to speak about: repairs and maintenance. Homeowners are responsible for paying the big bucks for costly home repairs, such as a new roof and furnace, and are advised to set aside 3–5% of a home’s value toward home repairs and maintenance each year. Renters, on the other hand, can just call their landlord whenever they need repairs (provided the landlord actually picks up). Still, it’s important that tenants know their rights when renting to be aware of which fees do and don’t fall under their responsibility.

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A Montreal Real Estate Broker Answered 5 Qs About Buying A Property To Rent Out

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You’ve probably heard that Montreal’s real estate market is on fire. But how can you get in on the action? According to Alex Marshall, a local real estate broker, buying a property as an investment for the purpose of renting it out is a great way to go about it.

Marshall, who’s part of the Keller Williams Prestige team, sat down with us to explain why and how to purchase an investment property. These types of properties are also known as revenue properties.

Why do you recommend buying a revenue property?

Marshall used personal experience to highlight the advantages of owning a revenue property. He’s currently renting out the Saint-Henri loft he bought in 2010.

“Not only is my tenant paying off my mortgage, but I’m making a couple 100 bucks a month as well,” Marshall said.

Marshall was also able to take out a line of credit on the property, he said, and use the equity to buy an additional property.

“You actually don’t need to live in the property that you buy. I’m seeing clients who are in apartments with low rent [who] don’t want to move but have got the money right now … and are looking for smart ways to invest,” he said.

What are some tips to help people save up for a revenue property?

When Marshall was saving up to buy his first property, he said he worked a second job. 

“There’s a lot of value to having that side hustle … even if it’s at Subway or it’s at a landscaping company on Saturdays. It will add up significantly in the long run,” he said.

He gave the example of adding $5,000 to your annual income.

Marshall said you can qualify to borrow roughly four times your annual salary for a mortgage so $5,000 could actually provide you with an extra $20,000 of buying power.

“That might get you a second bedroom, that might get you a parking spot, that might get you a larger space,” he said.

The pandemic, Marshall said, has also helped some of his clients save extra funds.

“You can’t travel, you can’t go to the restaurant, you can’t go to the theatre, you can’t go to the bar. So a lot of people right now are finding themselves with almost a disposable income,” he said.

Marshall also recommends looking into Canada’s Home Buyers’ Plan program, which allows you to withdraw up to $35,000 — — tax-free — from your registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) to put toward buying or building a qualifying home. 

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