‘There is light at the end of the tunnel, and I don’t think it’s a train coming!’ said Eric Decouvelaere, head of retail EMEA at CBRE Investment Management, on the outlook for pan-European retail on the first day of Expo Real.
‘We are seeing very good economic fundamentals for certain retail assets, with sales way ahead compared to 2019, while footfall is getting closer to 2019 levels,’ he added. ‘Our retail destinations need to be vibrant and we want people back. Occupancy is close to frictional levels, while rental income is very steady following rents rebasing.’
CBRE IM manages around €10 bn of retail assets in Europe and for Decouvelaere, his team and the industry as a whole have come a long way in the last four years.
‘The pandemic taught us a lot and we are a better partner for our tenants than we ever were,’ he said, outlining a scenario of rents finding new levels, ongoing opportunities for leverage, and a healthier occupier market.
Responding to recent market rumours surrounding major assets coming to market, he added: ‘Retail is an asset class to invest in. There are a lot of off-market rumours but no transactions as yet.’ While not sure if many deals will close before year end, he added: ‘I think it’s a question of quarters. We need to be ready for the coming year and the market opportunities that could arise.
‘We are still not clear on pricing, as soon as we have some market moves we will know more. What is certain is that we can deliver some income return, and retail remains one of the asset classes which is able to accommodate higher interest rates, because of the yield it generates. And that gives us another competitive advantage.
‘With what capital? We do a lot of work with our investor clients, and while retail was not the best regarded asset class in the last few years, views are changing. Always with the caveat that they must be well-managed.’
On that note, Decouvelaere underlined that retail assets are still polarising at pace into market leaders and runners-up. ‘Discerning investors will have to be very careful and resist some bargains which are now not matching what retail needs. It’s always the same equation: right location, relevant proposition, strong execution. If you build relevance, you can build dominance.’
Decouvelaere said that leverage was still available, with lenders ‘critically eyeing retail, but not blind to its nuance’.
For Decouvelaere, the changing occupier landscape is one of its most exciting facets. ‘Some have really embraced omnichannel, and are going for bigger, nicer stores in key locations. Those who have had more difficulty to get on board with e-commerce, because the logistics wasn’t priced into their business model, are choosing smaller stores but more than before, which is positive.’
Overall, he is excited by occupiers ‘walking the talk’ on ESG as his team seeks to cut further leasing deals. He cited recycling and refurbishing initiatives from major fashion brands which are establishing new baselines for responsible consumerism. ‘We need to think about what our occupiers want now, as well as five years from now,’ he added. ‘So it’s about understanding new formats and how demand is changing. It’s very exciting.’