Redefine upbeat about SA retail as shoppers flock back to malls

By Londiwe Buthelezi for Fin24

Even though the ongoing nationwide lockdown has sent many of its tenants’ operations on a tailspin, property giant Redefine says South Africa’s retail sector is showing a better recovery trajectory than markets like China where shoppers continue to stay away from shopping malls.

The owner of shopping centres such as the Centurion Mall and the East Rand Mall told journalists during the presentation of its interim results on Monday that while it expects demand for retail space to change as the coronavirus (Covid-19) and lockdown changed people’s way of doing things, South Africans are still showing love for malls.

Redefine Financial Director, Leon Kok said looking at photographs of the group’s shopping centres and malls taken over the past long weekend, they resembled a “normal weekend” with people visiting in droves, but still keeping the required level of social distancing.

Shoppers flock back to malls

“I can’t believe the numbers of people that were going to shopping centres… Surprisingly, I would say that in our centres, between 40% and 70% of the centres’ [shops] were open,” he said, but acknowledged that since restaurants and gyms will remain closed for the foreseeable future, this will affect foot traffic.

Richard Cheesman, senior analyst at Protea Capital Management said most people’s observation of shopping centre activity over the past weekend would probably correlate with what Redefine reported. But in the medium-term, as the current economic situation dampens consumer spending, Covid-19 will weigh on the local real estate industry as many other commentators have predicted.

“You would expect an initial bounce back after the lockdown. This may moderate going forward. Some areas are still not open such as entertainment and sit-down restaurants. Eventually the market should stabilise at a below average level,” he said.

Stanlib’s Head of Listed Property Funds, Keillen Ndlovu, said what set South Africa apart from other markets is that South Africans love to shop.
“We are a shopping nation and the malls opened (for Level 4 lockdown trading) at the beginning of the month after most people have just been paid. Most of all, we have low levels of online shopping at about 2% of total retail sales. So, people have to go out and shop,” he said.

In comparison, online shopping in China now accounts for over 30% of total retail sales compared to South Africa’s 2%, and even if people wanted to shop more online in the country, delivery of many items has not been allowed during the lockdown, he added.

But rental income will still be low

South African’s willingness to go out shopping again will be a welcome relief to landlords, as it could help convince their retail tenants to keep their rented space. However, Redefine said it still expects to grant more rental concessions to tenants or that some tenants will not make it at all.

The group’s Chief Operating Officer, David Rice, said rental discussions were taking place between Redefine and many of its tenants, as some were not happy about paying rates and taxes. Rice said the group also expects the vacancy rate in its office portfolio, which climbed to 12.3% in the six months to February, to continue rising.

Ndlovu said unfortunately property companies are going into these negotiations with tenants in a “tenants’ market”.

“Landlords have to do the best they can to nurse ailing tenants. It costs more to lose a tenant than to retain one, even at a lower rent. There’s no demand for vacant space at the moment. Even if there was, there’s an opportunity cost of missed rentals when the property is vacant,” he said.

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