BUSINESS

Is The Shopping Mall Dead? Not So Fast...

12/17/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST
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TORONTO - The rise in online shopping may have raised concerns for retail property owners, but the chief executive at First Capital Realty (TSX:FCR) says he doesn't foresee the day brick-and-mortar shops vanish from cities.

"We strongly believe that in the next 10 years, you're not going to go to the dentist online," Dori Segal told reporters during a roundtable event in Toronto on Wednesday.

Although e-commerce will take a bite out of profits at shopping centres, it's unlikely to completely eradicate traditional shopping, Segal said. That's especially true in urban centres where condo dwellers spent much of their time outside the home, he added.

"When you live in a 1,000-square-foot condo, or an 800-square foot condo, it's not actually such a bad idea to go downstairs, have sushi for dinner and on the way back pick up a bottle of wine, or some groceries," Segal said in an interview.

"I think in the urban areas, there is some social aspect to hanging out in stores that goes beyond just doing your shopping."

That's why First Capital Realty has moved to snatching up older properties in the heart of dense cities and renovating them, Segal said, rather than buying up land on the fringes of cities and waiting for the population to grow.

The real estate company owns about $8 billion worth of retail property in Canada, including Place Viau in Montreal, Mount Royal Village in Calgary and Yorkville Village and Humbertown Shopping Centre in Toronto.

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First Capital has also tried to choose tenants that will be able to weather economic shocks and competition from online shopping, such as grocery stores, fitness centres and providers of health care and personal services, Segal said.

If it's an approach that seems unexciting during times of economic boom, the company's top executives say it is proving prudent given the expected impact of falling oil prices on Canada's economic growth.

"The beauty is that we are really the providers of daily necessity items and services; the things that you need whether there's a recession or whether there's prosperity," said Chaim Katzman, the chairman of First Capital Realty and its parent company Gazit-Globe.

"We don't shine that much during prosperity. But also we don't fall into to the doldrums during a recession. That's the thing that needs to be understood about our business."

Retail property owners invested a total of $6.9 billion last year into constructing new buildings and renovating existing ones, according to a report released by the Real Property Association of Canada last month.

Alex Avery, an analyst at CIBC World Markets, says First Capital has shifted its focus from acquiring new properties to investing in its existing portfolio.

"After a period of rapid growth expanding to 2012, the company has placed further emphasis on its active asset management and development and redevelopment activities, and de-emphasized growth in scale," Avery said in a note to clients after the company reported its third-quarter earnings last month.

"Having achieved a critical mass and economies of scale, it appears the company is now more singularly focused on value creation and capital recycling."

That's because all of the best properties in Canada's major cities have already been taken, Segal said, adding that he doesn't expect acquisitions to be the "driving engine" of growth for any of the country's largest retail property owners in the coming years.

"I don't think there are a lot of acquisition opportunities," he said. "It'll be a lot more about assembling and growing your existing assets."

em>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that First Capital Realty owns $1 billion worth of retail property in Canada. It owns $8 billion.