What’s so scary about Amazon? It makes every business it competes with efficient, squeezing waste out of the supply chain and compressing margins for the entire industry. Now, Whole Foods’ 450 stores in 42 states will form the start of a nationwide distribution center for groceries that will build upon the Amazon Fresh grocery delivery unit, founded in 2007.
All Whole Foods’ stores won’t close, but they will change. Yes, customers will always want a neighborhood store for the touch, smell and feel of certain things — to pick up steaks for a dinner party, for fresh pastries and crisp lettuce. However, Amazon won’t stock high-priced downtown real estate with excessive amounts of paper towels and floor cleaning products, or even dry goods such as pasta or canned beans. The mass of these items will instead be stored and distributed from regional warehouse facilities, perhaps automatically shipped directly to customers using predictive models. As a result, the average size of a typical Whole Foods store most likely will shrink, as will the average grocery store across America.
Some supermarkets will stay the same, for people who don’t like shopping online or prefer a trip to the store. Most competitors, however, will adapt to the Amazon model, shrinking their footprint and bolstering online capabilities to become more efficient and automated. Large grocers must now change their business model or go the way of the dinosaur.
This will create significant disruption in commercial real estate as countless supermarkets go out of business, others remodel to occupy a smaller footprint, and some move to new premises. We saw similar disruption after the 2008 financial crisis when thousands of car dealers across America went bankrupt as credit dried up and countless supermarkets closed as property prices crashed. A repeat of that dynamic in the grocery sector will be a significant opportunity for investors in distressed assets. At Northstar Commercial Partners, for example, after the crisis we bought five vacated Albertsons stores in Colorado for less than 10 percent of their replacement value. Each of these were repositioned into alternative uses at attractive prices.
Investing in such properties, when they become available, requires a creative approach to what could work in the space, whether it’s a single business or remodeling the space to create a series of smaller units. In the case of those Albertsons stores, for example, one is now occupied by an antique dealer, another by a college that wanted a neighborhood presence.
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