New York City’s Retail Realities Feed Suburban Trends
From big box decision-makers to trendy niche moves, brick-and-mortar shops migrate outward from the metropolis’ center
It’s like a revolving door at a store in the mall: Retail concepts born or popularized in New York City are increasingly finding their ways into nearby suburban areas — and then vice versa as the concepts evolve and chase foot traffic.
From the perspective of brands, a suburban storefront in New York’s tri-state area is the perfect opportunity to capitalize on where remote workers have set up camp in a market, where rents are significantly lower than in the five boroughs. There’s money to be saved and money to be made.
Ross Dress For Less, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, World Market and other off-price merchandise stores are seeing expansions into the outer boroughs of New York and into nearby suburban markets, according to Chase Welles of The Shopping Center Group. Quick-service restaurants such as Cava and Sweetgreen are also invading suburban markets.
Data in the ‘burbs can be hard to come by, but markets like Westchester County saw retail asking rents in Class A properties of about $29.32 per square foot, per Newmark, above the national average asking rent at about $23.42 per square foot, according to a report from CBRE. Manhattan asking rents in the third quarter, by comparison, were $663 per square foot, a 2.7 percent increase over the previous quarter, per CBRE (CBRE).
Emily Green, the director of Brand Urban, represents landlords such as Urban Edge Properties, a commercial landlord whose Paramus, N.J., complex is anchored by a Target and a Whole Foods, as well as Federal Realty’s Darien Commons in Connecticut, among others.
Urban Edge, which owns Bergen Town Center and Bergen Town Center East, hired Brand Urban to find a mix of tenants that will get people walking between their major big-box occupiers inside and outside of the center.
“I’m seeing a lot of tenants from New York City implement a suburban strategy into their rollout plan,” Green said. “As you’re planning for 2024, you’re looking at the suburbs as much as you’re looking at the boroughs, especially for the food and beverage space. We want an energetic neighborhood where the consumer is coming out and spending money on food and beverage … so making sure that those suburban environments have that kind of after-school, into-the-evening energy is super important.”
Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, one of the brands Green represents, flipped its rollout strategy on its head once the pandemic began. Rather than focus on urban locations, the company started looking to more remote markets when people started settling into suburban life, beginning with a location in Greenwich, Conn.
“It kind of happened a little bit on a whim and then we realized there was such a warm reception from the community … and we thought, ‘OK, well, let’s begin to replicate this success,’ ” Green said.
The next Van Leeuwen location outside of the city came to Darien Commons followed by one in nearby New Canaan. Green also helped them secure a deal in Jersey City.
The flow goes the other way, too, as suburban brands have been bringing their specialties to the city. For example, Wegmans — the century-old grocer born in Rochester, N.Y., that offers global products to more isolated pockets of the United States — opened in Astor Place in Manhattan in a space formerly occupied by Kmart. Louisiana fried chicken chain Raising Cane’s has also opened up shop at 20 Astor Place in a spot that a Walgreens once occupied.
But with the exception of Wegmans, most of the new wave of retailers replacing the old aren’t selling merchandise — they’re selling services.
“We’ve seen a big exodus between 2020 with the pandemic and then the horrible looting, rioting and lawlessness that we’ve seen in the city, which is still continuing, but I I think that what’s happening is a lot of these retailers started to come out saying, ‘OK, if ever there was a time to find a deal in New York City, it is now,’ ” Adelaide Polsinelli, vice chairperson at Compass, told CO.
Stores selling essentials in Manhattan have seen staggering increases in theft compared to more suburban parts of the city, according to a report from Mayor Eric Adams’s office. Manhattan, for instance, saw a 78 percent increase in theft between 2018 and 2022 and 44 percent between calendar year 2021 and 2022 alone. The Bronx saw the highest increase in theft, around 84 percent between 2018 and 2022 and 60 percent between 2021 and 2022. Queens saw the highest percentage increase among the five boroughs — 101 percent between 2018 and 2022 and 30 percent between 2021 and 2022 — leaving it with the second most mild case of retail theft in the city.
Only Staten Island, a borough with the most suburban image of the five, saw the amount of retail theft go virtually unchanged through the years, with only an 18 percent increase from 2018 to 2022. Manhattan recorded 28,519 incidents of theft while Staten Island only had 1,495 during this time in 2022.
The increase in retail theft has forced chains like CVS and Duane Reade to put barriers on shelves requiring employee assistance, while others shuttered locations where they say shoplifting hit them the hardest. Target at East River Plaza in East Harlem, for example, was one of nine stores the national brand closed over the fall, citing retail theft as the culprit.
Restaurants and medical services, much like in the suburbs, are taking space once occupied by drugstores. Preschools and religious institutions are also capitalizing on retail condominiums on Sixth Avenue in the city because they don’t pay taxes, according to Polsinelli.
“Taxes are going up, expenses are going up, values are going down, and it’s the best time for nonprofits to come out and buy up space,” Polsinelli said.
None of which is to say that suburban retail is problem-free. Slower foot traffic to tri-state malls and shopping centers in October has number crunchers wondering if things will indeed pick up during the holidays.
Nationwide, foot traffic at indoor malls and open-air shopping centers dropped annually 11.6 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively, in September before increasing 9 percent and 6.5 percent in October, according to data firm Placer.ai.
Ethan Chernofsky, senior vice president of marketing at Placer.ai, believes that something has to change, considering the work that malls have put in to diversify their tenant rosters, offering not only shopping but also gyms, high-end dining, coworking spaces and novelty experiences like ax throwing.
Bury the Hatchet — one such experiential venue — now has a location in Garden State Plaza in Paramus, for example. The Mall at Short Hills in Millburn, N.J., also provides coworking through Industrious.
“We have our classic picture of like the ’90s mall — it’s apparel, there’s beauty, there’s a food court, done. But what if the mall is redone?” Chernofsky said. “All of our data does indicate that there might be visitor declines, but their visit duration increases, which is what you’d want to see around the concept of why to diversify mall tenants.”
Health tenants are also bringing more Monday-through-Friday traffic to malls, according to Chernofsky.
Malls may be thinking about selling not only consumer goods but also experiences, in a way reinventing and elevating the concept of the mall as a town center in a modern way by blurring the lines between office, residential and retail real estate, Chernofsky said.
“A coworking space brings people three or four days a week, two or three days on the low end of it, on a regular basis — which is really good for selling food there,” Chernofsky said. “It kind of opens this creative approach where the standard rules don’t apply.”
Celebrity-backed retail is also driving increased occupancy in malls. Brands fitting that description leased 300,000 square feet in malls across the country over the last decade, and 82 percent of such companies are leasing mall space, according to an August report from JLL (JLL).
And this is not to say that malls are succeeding in today’s market. A separate report from JLL showed that, across the country, this asset class saw negative net absorption of about -0.4 million square feet and vacancy increased 10 basis points to 9.1 percent.
While the coworking spaces in Manhattan office properties have been a mixed bag of success and massive failure on the part of WeWork, with its recent bankruptcy, Chernofsky pushed back on the concept that coworking altogether is a bad business concept.
“I think there’s a mistake that would be made if we assume that coworking isn’t good because WeWork didn’t do well. I think WeWork made very unique choices that probably weren’t very smart,” Chernofsky said. “Coworking still has a really powerful model and approach, it just needs to be done properly.”
Mark Hallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.