Big Box Stores are Fueling a Commercial Real Estate Revival

(Photo credit: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)
(Photo credit: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)

Sign up for smart news, insights, and analysis on the biggest financial stories of the day.

Don’t close the book on Barnes & Noble just yet. Contrary to popular belief, the chain of sprawling bookstores isn’t just surviving in the age of Amazon — it’s thriving, with 30 new stores planned for next year.

It’s not the only one. A bevy of old-school, brick-and-mortar retailers have either grown their physical footprints in the past 12 months or plan to grow in the next 12, as detailed in a Wall Street Journal feature published on Monday. The return of big box to the big time is in turn creating a post-pandemic boomlet for the commercial real estate market.

Get in Loser, We’re Going (In-Person) Shopping

The commercial real estate market has been a roller coaster ride, with top hats and dips that match almost perfectly with broader economic conditions. Footprint expansions peaked in 2007, when big-box retailers leased 130 million square feet of new store space. Then, of course, came the 2008 financial crisis. And in the following couple of years, any chance at a full retail rebound was stunted by Amazon finally going thermonuclear and forever changing consumer habits. The twin destructive forces were enough to squash mall staples like Sports Authority and Toys R Us more or less for good.

But recovery did happen. While it never again reached the peaks of 2007, big box retailers steadily grew through much of the 2010s… before, of course, COVID-19 crashed the party and sent the industry into yet another existential crisis. Now, big box retailers are once again looking for space to unpack their big boxes, but this time they will attempt to “right size” while employing location tracking data to settle on the perfect spot:

  • TJ Maxx and Marshalls parent company TJX added 104 new locations this year, with plans for 1,500 in the next few years, a spokesman said. Ross Dress For Less opened 92 new locations this year. Meanwhile, Burlington — of coat factory fame — is set to open nearly 90 new stores in their fiscal year ending on January 28.
  • Overall, 60 million feet of large-format retail space (defined as 20,000 square feet or more) has been leased in 2022, Brandon Svec, national director of US retail data analytics firm CoStar, told WSJ. That continues 2021’s rebound though is shy of 2019’s 77 million square foot expansion.

Noble Endeavor: While Barnes & Noble may never match its nationwide peak of 726 stores in 2008, the chain does still have around 600 locations alive and kicking. It plans to add another 30 stores in 2023, including two Boston-area stores that previously housed brick-and-mortar Amazon Books stores. Now that’s an act of revenge worthy of The Count of Monte Cristo.