Retail: Flip a Coin, British Land or Frasers Group?

Posted on Nov 18, 2021. by NTI

It was less than a year ago where, on this very news-site, we penned an early obituary for the commercial property company, British Land. Its prospects looked gloomy in much the same way as the activities of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex appear a tad unroyal. Fast forward to yesterday (Wednesday 17 November) and the retail landlord reported that its net asset value per share, a key metric, had risen by 5.1 per cent to 681p in the six months to the end of September. In the same breath the mosquito-like buzzing of Meghan Sussex still barely avoids the flapping hands of senior royals, but some things will never change. One good swat should do it.

It was a brave bet for British Land to buy, during the pandemic, retail parks worth nearly £300 million in Farnborough and Thurrock, two of the least acceptable places in which to reside in southern England, but someone on the board is worth listening to, as these fairly typical 'park-your-car-get-out-and-get-on-with-it-out-of-town' shopping experiences have proven to be a winner. It seems that the peckers of retail parks generally are on the rise, as a fickle shopping population looks for easy-to-park out-of-town locations with bigger shops than average. Also, British Land favours such properties because their units are cheaper for retailers to rent and they tend to work well as click-and-collect centres and last-mile delivery hubs. Win-win.

Also, if you are a property developer, one of the only demographics who can still look down on arms dealers and club cricketers, retail parks are often located close to main roads, so also have the potential to be used for alternative forms of commercial property - being converted into warehouses, distribution centres and sofa workshops. The combined value of the British Land portfolio of offices, shopping centres, retail parks and warehouses rose by 2.9 per cent to £9.8 billion between April and September of this year and its rent collection stands at a successful 96 per cent. A good bet, you think? You'd think so; so why did shares in the company fall 10½p, or 2 per cent, to 523p yesterday? Presumably because of of that other loathsome demographic, stock brokers.

At the other end of the scale (not only from the above, but from 'good' and 'niceness') is Mike Ashley's Fraser Group, which owns not just 900 Sports Direct stores, but 40 House of Frasers. It appears that department stores, once the hearth of a British Christmas itself, just cannot catch a break. For those who know the layout of 'that end' of Oxford Street in London you have the monolith that is Selfridges (nice); then you look up the road towards Centrepoint and see Debenhams (oops), John Lewis (oh dear) and that rock solid stayer, House of Fraser. Well today the Fraser Group announced that House of Fraser was to close in January with further store closures being “inevitable” unless the business rates system was overhauled. So, that will be closure then, as our breath has been held so long on that one we all resemble Avatars. And we all know that the proposed 50 per cent reduction in business rates excludes the majority of large retail chains.

So, more office space, Amazon click and collect centres, virtual basketball courts, 'family experiences' and themed restaurants for Oxford Street, then. Just what it needs to raise its 'posh status' up to that of the Sussexes.

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