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Shopping centre landlords are 'spooked' by the recent collapses of high-profile Aussie retailers

Simon Johanson, Dominic Powell, SMH

Shopping centre landlords "spooked" by the collapse of high-profile retailers will likely be forced to renegotiate rents as store closures eat into occupancy rates and income from malls.

Australia's largest retail landlords have so far resisted pressure to cut rents, but they will bear the brunt of an unusually high number of store closures after a slew of well-known merchants raised the white flag in the face of persistently challenging trading conditions.

The country's largest mall owner Scentre Group, in particular, faces a major task to replace struggling retailers, with as many as 87 stores across its portfolio in voluntary administration.

Scentre operates the vast network of Westfield-branded malls founded by Sir Frank Lowy, including centres in Chatswood and Bondi Junction.

Another large mall manager, Vicinity Centres, has exposure to at least 33 redundant stores run by failing retailers. Vicinity manages the Chadstone mega-mall in Melbourne and Queen Victoria Building in Sydney.

So far this year, womenswear chain Bardot (58 stores), science retailer Curious Planet (63 stores), discount department store Harris Scarfe (21 stores), games seller EB Games (19 stores) and audio retailer Bose (about eight stores) have announced closures.

Fashion retailer Jeanswest also collapsed last week, with many of its 146 stores likely to close.

Richard Li, the local vice-president of fast-growing Chinese variety retailer Miniso, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he had seen landlords recently become much more willing to talk shop. Miniso has 32 stores, including a number at the country’s largest shopping centres.

"We always try and talk with them to reduce our rent, every year we bring up the topic, and previously they’ve never bothered to talk to us," Mr Li said. "They’re very arrogant when it comes to rent. But recently, it’s weird, a couple of them have wanted to talk with us."

With plans to have 100 stores by the end of the year, Mr Li notes rent is one of his company’s largest expenses. He believes landlords may have been spooked by the recent slew of retail closures and could be seeking to lock down their current tenants.

"They’re trying to keep current tenants and look for longer-term [leases]," he said.

In a note to clients, UBS analyst Grant McCasker downgraded Scentre's shares to a "sell" rating, warning investors in the real estate company would suffer the most from the "abnormally high" number of store closures over the past month.

Analysts expect Scentre's occupancy rate to fall slightly throughout 2020, noting the company could also suffer from further anticipated store closures at Big W and space rationalisation at retailers Myer and David Jones.

Scentre Group said annual customer visitations across its portfolio were 535 million and growing. Occupancy was above 99 per cent and had been for 20 years, a spokeswoman said.

“We are always listening to customer feedback to identify new and sought-after brands so we can remix and curate the right offering of retail products, services and experience," she said.

Both of Australia's major department stores flagged at their full-year results last year they would take an "aggressive" stance on renegotiating leases, with both Myer and David Jones looking to reduce store footprint by 10 to 20 per cent.

Premier Investments, which owns brands such as Smiggle and Just Jeans, also told investors it would play hardball with landlords, saying it had no qualms about walking away from leases where landlords did not provide "realistic" rents.

Broadly, Mr McCasker said the retail sector was unlikely to improve, noting it was the worst-performing sub-sector for four years running. UBS also predicts specialty retail sales will remain in the doldrums, forecasting sales growth of just 1 to 2 per cent.

With Miniso’s same-store sales growing at a clip of about 20 per cent a year, the retailer has managed to avoid the malaise of Australia’s retail market, with Mr Li warning conditions have remained grim into the new year.

"The general market, it’s worse. Most people are suffering," he said.

This story originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original story here.