Since David O. Larson launched his storied career as a retail broker, the Denver area’s population has almost doubled, rising by 92.56 percent.
The days of Denver being known as “cow town,” are in the rearview mirror since Larson began his retail career in 1982 at SullivanHayes Cos.
And Amazon was just a river during the early days of his career.
And what a career it has been. He co-founded and sold a full-service commercial real estate firm, EquiVentures Inc. He also served as a vice president for the national retail service network at the Trammell Crow Co.
In October 2000, Larson and partners founded Legend Partners.
That’s Legend Partners, not Legend Retail Group, or his personal favorite malaprop, Legend Realty.
Legend Partners, with an office in Salt Lake City, as well as in Denver, specializes in all aspects of retail. Legend Partners has expertise in brokerage, investment sales and development.
Some of the key clients of Larson, a Denver native, have included household names such as AMC Theaters, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Cost Plus World Market, IKEA, Michaels, Sears Holdings and Sportsman’s Warehouse.
His favorite quote comes from Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Last week, Laron took time from his crowded dance card to answer some questions from Rebchook Real Estate Corner.
Rebchook: Last month, in the Emerging Trends report released by the Urban Land Institute, a table showed that Denver lost more retail square footage per capita than any other city in the U.S. between 2007-2018. Does that surprise you? And is it good or bad that Denver’s retail footprint on a per capita basis has been shrinking?
Larson: I don’t think that Denver losing more retail square footage is a surprise, given that Denver has historically been over-retailed. Denver has been a great retail market for years, and as such, every retail concept maximized their store count, relative to the population. A reduction in the retail square footage per capita is a good thing for Denver and the entire country. As a frame of reference, and no surprise, the U.S. has the most retail per capita at 23.5 square feet per peson. The next highest is Canada at 16.4 sf per person. Europe has just under 3 sf per person.
Rebchook: As someone who has lived through, survived and prospered during the various retail cycles in Denver, what is one piece of advice you would you give to a tenant in this evolving market? Along the same lines, what advice would you give to a landlord and what advice would you give to a retail developer?
Larson: For tenants, my advice is to stay relevant and be vigilant about change, particularly integrating your online platform with your brick-and-mortar stores. The retailers that rest on their history, brand or past success will suddenly find themselves going the same direction as long-standing brands like Sears and Kmart.
For landlords, nothing has changed. Do your homework and truly understand the retailer’s concept, management, business model and financial health. Don’t just fill a vacancy with the first tenant that can pay the rent, or you may be re-leasing the space in 18 months.
For developers, don’t overleverage the property. The disciplined developers that have kept their loan to value (LTV) ratio to 60 percent or less always seem to survive, even in the most severe downturn.
Rebchook: Some people believe there is going to be a brick-and-mortar “Retail Armageddon,” largely because of Amazon. Do you think this is true? Even if it isn’t, how can retailers, landlords and developers best compete against Amazon?
Larson: I don’t believe in “Retail Armagedon.” People, especially Americans, like to shop. A big part of shopping is the experience. Amazon is without question the biggest/fastest disrupter that retailing has ever seen. However, everyone thought that Wal-Mart and the other big-box concepts would put every small independent store out of business. While it did affect many small stores, it gave rise to another class of retail that offered something more than the box retailers could. I also think it is interesting that Amazon’s initial entry into retailing was just books. At that time, everyone predicted that there would not be a single brick-and-mortar bookstore after five to 10 years. While chains like Borders disappeared, and Barnes & Noble reduced their store count, Barnes continues to survive and even thrive, as they adjusted to the new retail landscape. I think we will see the same in all categories of retail. Amazon is already opening brick-and-mortar concepts. At the same time, Amazon also is trying to figure out how to get products delivered within one or two hours. Almost makes you think they need to have multiple facilities strategically located within 2 to 5 miles of one another. That’s a strategy taken from a grocery store’s or retailer’s playbook.
Rebchook: What is the biggest change you have seen in Denver retail since you started in the business 36 years ago? When you first started in 1982, did you ever dream we would have a retail landscape like we have today?
Larson: I don’t think anyone dreamed the retail landscape would look like it is today. That’s true in Colorado or anywhere in the country. The evolution of retail that I have seen since starting in the business, was first the neighborhood or community centers (80,000 to 120,000 square feet) built for off-price/promotional stores like Ross, TJ Maxx. They challenged the traditional department store. And at the same time, enclosed regional malls continued to be built and were still very viable. Malls defined the best trade areas in any given state and set the focal point of the retail market. Then in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we saw the onslaught of big-box retailers – first referred to as “category killers.” These so-called category killers led to an insane amount of new construction of “power centers.” power centers were typically 25,000 to 500,000 square feet in size. They needed to have giant footprints to meet the demand for all of these new concepts. In the decade of the ‘90s, stores kept getting bigger and each concept had two or three competitors – think Bed Bath & Beyond, HomePlace, Linens N Things; or Best Buy, Circuit City, Ulitmate Electronics. It’s no wonder that we had too much retail space in Denver and across the nation!
Rebchook: When did things begin to change?
Larson: The biggest shift started in the great recession in 2007. That market a sea change for retail. The national downturn wasn’t just an economic hardship to retail, but simultaneously saw the explosive growth of online shopping. Thereafter, the economy recovered but the retail world was changed forever.
Rebchook: What’s next?
Larson: No one knows what the future will look like for retail. The only certainty is that it will continue to evolve. Astute retailers, and/or new concepts we can’t even imagine will redefine the next decade. It will be a very dynamic 10 years ahead. Retail will look radically different. But it will still exist, even though it will face new predictions of Retail Armageddon.
My singular hope for retail in the future is that someone will still need a broker and will still pay a commission, even if it’s in Bitcoin.
Rebchook: Thanks, David.