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Why Simon Property Malls Will Be a Long-Term Coronavirus Winner

Efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic have forced many retailers to close, and malls have mostly shut their doors (with the exception of essential stores that are still in limited operation). That's clearly bad news in the short term for Simon Property Group (NYSE: SPG), but the impact of COVID-19 could eventually have a silver lining.

Currently, the largest mall owner in the United States has furloughed 30% of its workers and laid others off. In addition, the CEO for the retail real estate investment trust (REIT) isn't taking a salary, and non-furloughed executives are taking pay cuts up to 30%.

That's all very bleak, but the REIT may have much brighter days ahead.

Eventually, shoppers will return to malls. Image source: Getty Images.

The good news for Simon

Simon Property Group operates higher-end malls and its Premium Outlets brand, which are open-air malls and not traditional enclosed malls.

"Those who can weather this storm and survive may have the opportunity to thrive in the future when consumers eventually reach a point where they are ready to indulge themselves," University of Maryland Marketing Professor Jie Zhang said in a press release.

Basically, consumers are going to want to shop at some point but the coronavirus may push struggling malls over the edge. Zhang expects the number of malls to shrink, and that's good news for the ones that survive.

She also believes that consumers will be more comfortable shopping in open-air spaces first. That could be a big plus for Simon's outlet malls, which will be well-positioned to serve customers.

"To attract consumers back, shopping malls will need to beef up their entertainment offerings, their recreational offerings, and their experiential-based-shopping offerings," Zhang added. She defined those as luxury amenities -- higher-end restaurants, virtual try-on dressing rooms and smart mirrors, high-tech customized product offerings -- that entice shoppers to return again and again.

Many Simon malls, which tend to have higher-end retailers as tenants, already offer some of those amenities. And some Simon properties had already been working to convert some retail space to entertainment and other uses.

As weaker malls close, some of the tenants in those malls may end up being released from leases. That should help Simon fill holes in its malls and outlet centers, even in a time where not too many retailers plan to open stores (which will be the likely environment for at least a while).

This won't be quick

Even struggling malls tend to have a long, drawn-out death. Some of those deaths will likely be hastened by this crisis, while others may linger simply because the demand to use those sites for other purposes -- like for housing or mixed-use developments -- may subside for a time.

In the months and years after the coronavirus crisis passes, Simon will be able to slowly build itself back. It was already doing things like adding eating halls, hotels, and other non-traditional businesses to its malls. This is a case where scale matters.

Simon has a national footprint and can make deals to bring big chains to multiple properties. That might mean seeing many Simon malls add the same gym brand, or seeing a coffee chain become its partner in many (or all) of its outlet malls.

Recovery -- at least when it comes to revenue and share price -- may take a long time. Simon, however, is well-positioned to make it through to the other side.

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