SHOPPING CENTERS AS NEW FIRM INCUBATORS AND ANGELS:
ON THE MALL OF AMERICA ENTREPRENEUR PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM
Karl Egge, Macalester College
Jerry Gustafson, Beloit College
Since the Mall of America (MOA) opened in 1992 it has had 23 small, in-line store, specialty retailing tenants in its Entrepreneurship Partnership Program (EPP). This paper describes and analyzes this program and its participants. Those nascent entrepreneurs selected from a large group of both unsolicited and recruited applicants received start-up assistance in the forms of free store build-out and architectural costs, favorable lease terms, and on-going business advice. Considerations from economic theory and in-depth interviews with twelve EPP partners confirm that EPP was not merely a promotional gimmick or disguised method of price-discounting of excess space, but did successfully generate new retail ventures in ways consistent with profit maximizing behavior of MOA management.
Employing nearly 10,000 people upon its August, 1992 opening, the MOA in Bloomington, Minnesota was the largest enclosed retail shopping and entertainment mall in the U.S. It now has over 400 tenants including retail stores and restaurants. Built on 78 acres, it consists of 4.2 million covered square feet of which over 2.5 million are retail space. Shaped like a square donut with the middle containing a spectacular amusement theme park, it is a 2.5 mile walk through all four levels. Four anchor stores at the corners consume one third of the total retail space. In addition to the theme park, complete with Roller coaster, Flume, and dozens of other attractions and rides, MOA's entertainment offerings include an 18 hole miniature gold course; a Lego imagination center; nearly 60 restaurants, nightclubs, and fast-food stores; and a 14 screen cinema complex. A $650,000,000 total investment, 55% of the Mall is owned by TIAA. The two remaining shares are split equally between Triple Five Corporation, of Edmonton, Alberta, and Melvin Simon & Associates, who also own the MOA management contract.
Simon developed in 1991 an Entrepreneurship Partnership Program (EPP) for MOA. Its goal was to attract about 20 small, young, innovative, exciting, and risky specialty retailers as in-line store tenants. A substantial up-front investment by Simon would be made for each entrepreneur partner in the form of store build-out costs, interior design consultation, a thorough vetting of business concept and design, continuing advice concerning techniques of mall retailing, and liberalized lease terms. Simon anticipated that approximately $2,000,000 in store build-out and in-kind assistance would lower barriers to entry by independent retailers and that design and business consultation would reduce risk of failure. In exchange Simon had a strategy to gain new potentially long-term tenants with fresh, creative, and tested ideas and even show-stopping appeal.
We were told "about 500" prospective tenants submitted answers to Simon's rigorous five-page questionnaire. Simon solicited and recruited some applicants. The questionnaire focused on store image and concept, and the applicant's retailing experience. These items were clearly key in Simon's screening of the ventures. The questionnaire called for detailed explanation of the nature and uses of merchandise, the target market, the entrepreneur's resume and previous business experience including especially the location, number, and sales of other stores operated by the entrepreneur.
Winners selected from this group were subject to a second round of detailed inquiry and examination. The entrepreneurs supplied answers to a 12-page tenant questionnaire, which emphasized matters of particular interest to Shea Architects, the store design consultants. MOA wanted detailed information regarding the concept, market awareness, guest services philosophy, signage plans, role of inspectors and mall regulations. MOA also called for specific business planning information and supplied each entrepreneur partner with a pamphlet explaining "How to Write a Business Plan." The process led the partners on a close examination of the full range of issues often deemed central to new venture planning.
An EPP "Fact Sheet" from MOA shows that the selected entrepreneurs were provided consultation regarding concept development, store design and construction, visual merchandising, business planning, and on-going support. Lease terms were negotiated and subject to individual modification. Interviews suggest that terms did not deviate far from: Three year terms (in contrast to a standard ten years), a minimum rent of about $40 psf, an average rental rate of 8% applied to sales, and capped common area maintenance and related charges for the term of the lease. MOA contemplated a two year payback on a claimed average of $100 psf in EPP investment costs.
We seek to shed light on questions pertaining to the program as actually implemented: Why was the program developed, who was selected and how were they screened, what did entrepreneurs actually receive, how have they performed, and how do the entrepreneurs and MOA evaluate the results? Our interest is not in MOA per se, but in its success in stimulating new retail ventures. What was the investment value of EPP to MOA and what are the lessons of EPP for strategies of mall development in general? Answering such questions requires some understanding of shopping centers as a business and of the role of specialty retailers as one set of tenants. Economic theory can prove helpful as a guide to research questions. Finally, interviews with more than half the surviving entrepreneur partners can shed significant light.
Simon, MOA, and the EPP entrepreneurs were and are highly guarded and reluctant to provide data and share information with outsiders. Therefore, we lack information to support all the arguments below with confidence. On the other hand, a resourceful use of information available creates a picture which yields some answers which are plausible and interesting, if tentative.
THEORY AND BACKGROUND
Hypotheses From Economics
Two relevant hypotheses emerge which are significantly informed by information at hand. Both are standard in economic analysis of rational profit maximizing. To the degree that MOA behavior conforms to the hypotheses, we have evidence that EPP is motivated by MOA's quest for economic gain rather than by promotional gimmickry centered on the attractive idea of a sort of entrepreneurial olympics. Several other propositions emerge regarding collateral features of the deal important to MOA and to the entrepreneurs. These propositions are of greater interest in the evaluation of EPP as a business development strategy.
Hypothesis #1: Partners selected should prove to be both potentially riskier and more profitable than the average tenant. In addition, the expected covariance of sales of those chosen, given the uniqueness and niche appeal of the nascent entrepreneurs' operations, should be relatively low with sales of average non-program tenants. These predictions are simple and straightforward applications of portfolio theory.
Confirming evidence would include sales psf above mall averages combined with a higher than average percentage of EPP stores which ultimately closed. The hypothesis predicts that survivors should appear relatively healthy as evidenced by factors such as high sales, expansion of size, addition of operations within the mall, or expansion to other malls. To reduce covariance of EPP store sales with non-program stores, we would expect to observe a screening process focused upon uniqueness, excitement, and entertainment value of the shopping experience. Me-too retailing concepts, common item vendors, or souvenir shops, which at best take advantage of foot traffic flows and at worst detract from sales of non-program in-line store tenants, should not be observed among winners.
Hypothesis #2: Based on the theory of price discriminating monopoly we expect EPP partners paid a lower net price than their non-program peers. Price here includes capitalization of build-out costs, advice, lease length, and caps on common charges as well as rent.
The phenomenon of rational price discrimination is well-known. A firm controlling a fixed output, which faces two separable markets (which cannot resell output to each other), will adjust price to the elasticity of the customers' demand curves. Compared to equilibrium without the discrimination, the monopolist will sell a higher output at a lower price to demanders with the higher price elasticity. Think of an amusement park which charges children less than adults thus earning higher profits than if ticket prices were the same for each. MOA is obviously such a monopolist, who faces prospective tenants possessing different demand curves for in-line space. The EPP partners' demand is clearly more price sensitive than that of corporate tenants. Any "program," regardless of labels with public relations value such as "EPP," which allows only a small number of unique firms into it, will permit a lessor to offer more favorable lease terms and up-front cash-equivalent sums to that group while increasing profits.
Evidence confirming hypothesis #2 would include the partners reporting they received lease terms containing greater economic value than non-program tenants. A favorable attitude of EPP partners toward the program, or partners reporting that the EPP made the difference in their entry to MOA, would provide indirect evidence that these favorable terms existed. Structure of terms which prominently feature shorter leases and up-front incentives and relatively higher rents also provide evidence, since the EPP partners' more price elastic demand curves make them sensitive to net price, while MOA is concerned with total return.
Propositions Regarding Developer and Entrepreneur Evaluations
The following propositions relate to plausible considerations which enhance the investment value of the EPP to MOA and to the EPP partners. Each of the propositions is testable in principle. We have evidence to provide commentary on them, but remain far short of an ability to quantify their importance.
Proposition #1: Considerations which increase investment value to mall developers regarding a program such as EPP:
1a. Mall operators need strategies to fill otherwise empty space to create an impression of high occupancy and to reduce downward price pressure on lease terms by main-line tenants.
1b. Short term leases offered riskier tenants provide revenues from otherwise wasted space from which queues of more stable long-term lease tenants can be developed.
1c. Strategies are valuable which increase the flow of novel business concepts, that enhance excitement and spill over to the attractiveness of the entire mall.
1d. Strategies are valuable which lower search costs (marketing and advertising for new tenants), that reduce the costs and negative image on the mall of high failure rates, and which allow choice and selection without rigid adherence to costly rules.
1e. Strategies are valuable which generate operations likely to expand to other in-line stores, revenue producing kiosks or carts, or to potentially franchisable concepts suitable for other shopping center properties owned.
1f. A strategy may be valuable to fill in the lower-middle of the mall product line, e.g., the retail spaces between kiosks, carts, or bump-backs, on the one hand, and substantial in-line stores on the other. Filling a variety of such spaces increases the interest and shopping excitement of the entire mall.
Proposition #2: Considerations which enhance the value of the deal to the entrepreneur partners; that go beyond the economic value of the front-end incentives and business consulting:
2a. Partners receive reduction of many risks associated with new venture launch.
2b. Partners receive credibility from selection and high visibility.
2c. Partners receive proof of a new concept, which may offer possibility of expansion and growth.
These hypotheses and propositions will receive comment below where we discuss results from surveys and interviews with twelve of the EPP partners. However, first we must provide some background on mall economics and operations.
Background information on shopping center definitions, lease terms, and operations can be found in sources such as Shopping Center Development (1985). GLA is gross leasable space. Super-Regional Centers (SR's), such as MOA, are designated as those having 800,000 sf of GLA and which include 3 or more anchor stores. Sales psf and charges psf tend to be higher in proportion to mall size. Rents and other charges vary by product sold; jewelry, with high sales psf, are at the high end of charges, while anchors are lowest.
Of 39,000 shopping centers in the U.S. about 650 are SR's. (Shopping Center World, Jan., '94) Most space is owned by or leased to anchors and leased to corporate or franchised specialty chain stores. The largest 100 specialty chains, for example, range from the Limited, with 4,623 stores to Eddie Bauer with 294 (Stores, August, '94). Very little GLA is leased to independent operators featuring fresh appearance and non-standardized concepts. Typical revenue and cost data for tenants are found in Table I.
Shopping centers report about 90% occupancy, but have obvious incentives to overstate occupancy rates. Space is allocated in various sizes. Large anchors are typically occupant owned. In-line stores of perhaps 2,000 sf or more go mostly to corporate tenants. Other spaces consist of bump-backs (a shallow store front with disguised empty space behind), shelf-wall units (a counter fronting on the mall commons), kiosks (closet sized booths fronting on commons) and push carts. These small, specialized commercial spaces are often means of gaining revenues from otherwise wasted space.
Simon Property Group develops, owns, manages and leases shopping centers throughout the U.S. Their 112 properties include 54 enclosed regional malls which include 4,700 stores and 200 anchors (Prospectus, 1993). Anchors at SPG malls occupy about 60% of usually occupant-owned GLA. The remaining 40% is leased. Average rent psf of SPG regional mall stores was $16.91/yr. as of 9/93. The occupancy rate was 89%. New stores opening in 1992 paid base rents over $20 psf. Occupancy charges ran to an average of 10.2% of store revenues divided between rent (7.5% of revenue) and common area maintenance and other charges (2.7%). It is useful to bear these figures in mind for purposes of comparison with MOA.
We would expect, and will find, that MOA revenues and charges both exceed those of smaller SR's. Given its huge inventory of GLA, we would also expect to see strategies employed to diversify its product mix. In terms of size, MOA stands out:
Name and Location // GLA // Non-Tenant-Owned GLA
Mall of America, MN // 2,768,000 // 1,884,000
St. Louis Centre, MO // 1,716,000 // 1,316,000
Lloyd Center Mall, OR // 1,484,000 // 1,342,000
(all others including the 54 regionals in SPG's IPO have less than 1,000,000 in GLA)
SPG's growth strategy, not unlike a portfolio manager's or venture capitalist's strategy, is capsulized in the following quotes (Prospectus, pp. 46-7):
"The Company pursues an active leasing strategy that seeks an optimal mix of tenants at each shopping center to ensure the center's long-term success. This approach does not necessarily provide the highest possible occupancy rate at any one shopping center at any particular time, but management believes it is crucial to attracting a broad spectrum of shoppers to a center. Increased customer traffic can then result in higher tenant sales, from which a center benefits through increased percentage rents. In addition, increased sales can form the basis for increases in base rents as leases expire. Thus, the Company carefully reviews prospective tenants at each center, considering such factors as the tenant's capitalization and business strategy, and offers leases to retailers that will represent a long-term asset for a center. Management seeks to market its available space to ensure a diversity of retailers both by type of goods and by pricing strategy. ... The Company may take back space from under performing tenants, and as lease terms expire, it may have the opportunity to increase base rents and work with successful tenants to maximize their contribution to a center. This can involve relocation."
"The Simons pioneered one of the first programs to attract new retailers, which evolved into the Company's Retail Development Program. This effort was launched in the early 1980's to foster new retail businesses which occupy kiosks and small spaces in the Existing Properties. It has produced new tenants that enhance the merchandise mix of a particular center. Participating merchants can graduate from one level of space to another, and they may eventually expand to other locations within the Company's portfolio. "
Simon's strategy, as quoted above, is consistent with hypotheses #1 and #2. Let us first examine EPP as a specific expression of this strategy. Then we shall examine MOA's implementation of the program and its effects upon 12 of the successful EPP's. Case study interviews can help to assess what actually happened.
Specialty Retailers: a Strategic Product Mix
MOA has nearly 100 specialty tenants. In 1993 it had 46 carts, 11 bump-backs, and 22 shelf-wall unit fixtures or retail board-ups. Carts are cheap, at $7,000, consume little space, are easy to provide for lease periods as short as six months, and an efficient way of boosting revenues. Initial MOA cart sales ranged from $5,000 to $10,000 per week. Wall units, essentially 3' deep closets butted against hallway lease-lines, also permit short-term leases and represent a small upgrade from a cart in terms of tenant risk.
One objective of MOA, as with all malls, is to upgrade more temporary tenants to longer leases, larger spaces, and perhaps to additional centers. Entrepreneurial-type programs are a means of doing so and exist, at a number of centers (Chain Store Age Executive, Feb., '94). For example, Hahn's University Town Center in San Diego calls its informal, temporary leasing program the "Entrepreneur Opportunity Program." Perhaps less ambitious than EPP, this program nevertheless is specifically designed to recruit retailers who can be graduated from a cart or kiosk to an in-line store. Recruiting for tenants can range from merely combing through mall-seeking tenants listed in Leasing Opportunities, 1993 to the elaborate procedures employed by EPP. Another center objective is development of store variety which customizes the center's appearance (Whittemore, 1992).
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that EPP extended the temporary lease strategy one step by offering in-line stores of 1,000 sf or so at leases longer than those of the kiosks or temporaries, but much shorter than the 7 - 10 year leases for larger, non-program stores. That MOA is an extension of a common temporary lease program is confirmed by Keith Fox's comment that EPP is the benchmark by which other temporary tenant programs or incubators are judged (Whittemore, 1992). As Hogan (1993) indicates, "Whether they are used to fill up vacant spaces, supplement the center's merchandise mix or incubate up-and-coming retailers, temporary tenants have become an integral part of a shopping center's make-up."
The broader product mix makes obvious sense. Prospective tenants with unproven concepts might be attractive as a cart, wall-unit, or bump-back. Up-front costs are low and eventual failure is manageable. These tenants may graduate to preferred space much to the advantage of both parties. The more proven concepts fit the EPP which sought in-line stores. Front-end investment is higher but risk is lower. For such short-lease prospects, it also makes sense to proceed in partnership. Doing so increases control of MOA over store design and presentation while reducing risk. MOA should want to play a role in the business before opening. Such considerations, of course, provide evidence for the aptness of propositions 1a, 1d, 1e and 1f.
At the same time, competition from catalog and home-shopping calls for malls featuring entertainment and social opportunities (Shopping Center World, October, 1994) as well as a highly diversified tenant base. Avoiding a routine, look-alike quality leads to an emphasis upon specialty items and services, unusual crafts and small dealerships. The MOA appears to have been constructed and is construed with these admonitions already in place. This diversification and solicitation of "mom-and-pop" operators is consistent with propositions 1c and 1d.
In summary, part of the evidence for MOA's intentions regarding EPP is simply that the problems it faced and strategies it employed were under public discussion.
How Well Has MOA Done in Following the EPP Strategy?
It appears the EPP has succeeded in achieving MOA's goals. Partner survival rates, although not as high as for non-partner stores (consistent with hypothesis #1), were higher than industry-wide mall averages for regular tenants. An MOA official reported that industry averages suggest that 10% of stores close in the first year (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8/8/93). A reasonable expectation, therefore, was that some 35 stores might close. In fact, only 8 MOA stores closed in the first 10 months of operation. To date the EPP survival rate is 75% vs. 90%+ for regular tenants.
Sales psf for EPP partners have been strong exceeding $238 psf for the first six months (Minneapolis Star and Tribune, 2/11/93). On an annual basis, all MOA stores under 17,000 sf averaged about $420 sales psf. That is impressive especially if claims of some slippage in Mall attendance during the second year are true. The EPP partners as a group are performing somewhat better than that according to MOA. As shown in Table II, our sample of 12 are averaging close to $500 psf. This compares favorably with sales in other SR's, the upper 10% of which achieve specialty store average sales of $303 psf (Dollars and Cents of Shopping Centers, 1993, p.8.)
Rents and other charges likewise seem strong. A subsample of the 12 survivors in Table II are estimated to remit charges of about double the SR upper decile average of $39.30 psf (Dollars and Cents of Shopping Centers, 1993, p.8.) Our survey leads to an estimate of total occupancy charges to EPP partners of about 15% of sales, which compares to occupancy costs to national chain stores of about 10% of sales. There is little doubt that while the entrepreneurs believe they have received favorable incentives in their charges per square foot, they are in fact paying premium rents (as would be expected, given their relative riskiness and short-lease terms). Interestingly, one EPP tenant who switched the 3 year lease to 10 years after one year of operation says she did so because of the significant reduction in rent.
Finally, the demand for additional space in MOA by the Entrepreneurs has increased as a result of the program. Our sample of 12 have generated 4 additional stores, one wall-unit and two carts.
We lack financial data sufficient to calculate a rate of return to MOA from the EPP. It is easy to believe, though, that MOA will achieve its target payout period of two years. When one considers that vacant space is a deadweight and permanent loss, that a substantial portion of MOA's program costs were in-kind contributions which may have cost less to MOA than their true value, and further considers the spillover benefits to MOA from the variety and novelty of the specialty stores involved and potential for new store spin-offs, EPP appears to be an excellent investment for MOA.
How Have the Entrepreneurs Fared?
If EPP was a great deal for MOA, it appears to have been good for the entrepreneurs, too. Twelve of the partners' stores were objects of case study analysis. Students in one author's entrepreneurship class researched one operation each, performed thorough open-ended interviews with each proprietor, interviewed MOA management about the proprietor, and wrote reports on the results. The other author read the case studies for content and submitted his judgments and estimates about each case to the senior author. This procedure gave the senior author an independent reading on results. He, in turn, having benefit of direct interviews and other information, was able to confirm or question the second author's judgments. The results of the process are summarized in Table II.
The most significant finding might be the careful screening done by MOA on EPP applicants. EPP was not a contest for rank amateurs. The application questionnaire sought in a remarkably thorough fashion to probe the concept and its marketability. But it is clear that MOA also screened carefully not only according to the entrepreneurs' experience but apparently also by their previous demonstration of ability to learn and grow. The wisdom of their sophisticated approach to screening has been noted in the literature (Gartner, Starr, and Goodman, 1994 pp. 3,4). All but 1 in our sample had prior business experience, frequently a business degree, and were already owners of at least one store. The typical entrepreneur came to MOA already with 3 or 4 stores. One or two appear to have been achieving some $50,000,000 in sales before entry to MOA. Nearly all had previously proven the specific idea they took to MOA.
EPP partners appear to us to have been savvy, good businessmen and women. In fact, given the promotional material, which features EPP as a contest open to all sorts of over-the-transom ideas, some might be surprised to discover that all but two in our sample had been solicited by mall management. This is consistent with hypothesis #1. Eight of the 12 have developed plans for further growth; seven of those either plan growth within MOA or have already done so.
All 12 reported significant satisfaction with the MOA program. All claim greatest satisfaction with the degree of up-front assistance with build-out and store design. All appear satisfied with their negotiation of total charges psf and most believe they are receiving preferential treatment (even if there is slight evidence of that). Several state their belief that EPP made it possible to enter MOA on the same terms as they would have entered far less desirable centers. Although only a few of the entrepreneurs would share information on profitability, most evinced satisfaction with how they were doing. When asked whether they were on expectation, worse, or better, several responded "better;" none responded "worse." Complaints made were universally centered on the unwillingness or inability of MOA to protect their concept from competition or, indeed, from downright duplication within MOA.
Nearly all the entrepreneurs claimed that EPP was the difference in their decision to enter the MOA at all. Without the program most of these would not have entered MOA. This evidence is significant in helping demonstrate that EPP in fact generated new tenants for MOA. It supports hypothesis #2.
In view of the careful screening, front-end inducements, business advice and guaranteed foot traffic, one may wonder why anyone could fail. We have too little information concerning the five departed entrepreneurs to say much. One business failed for upset in the personal life of the entrepreneur. Two more opened with poor concepts. One of these featured a line of humorous and/or abstract art objects which had price points at $100 and up. That was apparently too expensive for tourist impulse buying. Another offered a mixture of paraphernalia related to pool and darts, including heavy tables -- which perhaps did not appeal to MOA shoppers' desires for portability. The final two failures were both jewelers, who we were told believed they could compete with the seasoned, larger, corporate jewelers in the mall.
Evidence cited from the specialty retailing sector in mall economics and from reviews of the experience of 12 surviving EPP entrepreneurs, even though somewhat casual, is consistent with the hypotheses and propositions with which we began. For Mall of America, EPP was no promotional give-away. It was a sensible, profit enlarging, business investment. For the EPP partners the program worked to permit them to extend into MOA; they probably would not have otherwise done so. EPP created profitable businesses which are capable of mutually rewarding extension and growth.
Table II illustrates that EPP is a success. Survival rates of 75% for the first 19 (later 23) starts is doubtless better than for new retailing starts, in general. Although the survival rate is not as high as for non-program MOA stores, the degree of success seems markedly preferable to the maintenance of empty space.
MOA seems not to have sacrificed much, if any, rental income. The likelihood is that rentals on the short-leases are in fact such that, given the strong sales experience which form the rental base, MOA should find its up-front investment costs returned over a reasonably short time. We soon will know this better, because the 3-year leases come due in Fall 1995.
From a theoretical angle appealing to entrepreneurship scholars, EPP is interesting since each venture is so standardized with respect to numerous vagaries of the start-up process, such as quality of planning, expert advice, and available market. Performance reduces to a pure play on business concept, merchandising, and skill of the entrepreneur. EPP, in other words, offers something of a laboratory experiment in mall retailing innovation. Compelling to cheerleaders of entrepreneurship is the appealing notion that, with up-front assistance offered by mall developers, fresh retailing could be incubated, new ideas proved, and promising entrepreneurs and potential franchisers launched.
The thought of real estate developers operating as venture capitalists, able to offer in-kind benefits whose direct cost is low relative to their value to the recipient, in order to achieve substantial long term gains, is intrinsically interesting. One is apt to think of incubation projects as low or negative pay-out ventures designed more to achieve social spill-over benefits than private profits. Simon has shown if somewhat business savvy entrepreneurs would like to grow their firms and concepts, and are selected with care, then the EPP strategy can lead to a successful return on its investment. This issue is worthy of more careful investigation, since if the success of the program is proven, it provides a basis for expecting that entrepreneur programs should be an aspect of any mall development project. Moreover, there might be extensions of this kind of program into arenas other than shopping malls.
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