Malls give Apple special treatment. Is it paying off?
For the past few years, various governments and media publications have pointed a spotlight on Apple’s tax-minimization efforts, which allow it to park over $111 billion offshore. The New York Times published another big piece this week detailing more of the company’s efforts to keep its tax burden as low as possible. Apple’s tax maneuvering is not unique. Many other large companies take similar strategies.
However, Apple’s scale is mostly unrivaled. The company booked over $215 billion in overall sales in 2016. More than 25% of these sales came from Apple’s own retail properties, both online and offline, and 75% came from third-party retail, such as phone carriers like Verizon and electronics stores like Best Buy. (In 2017, Apple’s direct sales have grown to 28%, as the company relies more on its own distribution.)
Out of this 25% of direct sales for 2016, close to 90% of it occurs offline in Apple’s nearly 500 retail stores. That’s about $48 billion total in overall retail sales or $97 million per store. Various market reports say the company pushes over $5,000 per square foot in its stores, with each store averaging around 17,000 square feet. Close to 500 million people visit Apple stores each year, but only 1 out of every 100 buys something, according to former retail head Ron Johnson.
While Apple is not alone with its tax strategies, it’s in a league of its own when it comes to retail productivity—and bargaining power.
Malls and anchor tenants
Traditional anchor tenants—department stores such as Saks, Macy’s, Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus—had mutually beneficial relationships with both mall operators and fellow tenants: they would draw shoppers into the mall who would then go shop in other stores, buy food and hang out. Anchor tenants were the bait. As a result, they had a special economic relationship compared to the other tenants: they would often pay minimal rent in exchange for all of the foot traffic they brought into the mall. Other tenants benefit from the anchor since its customers would go shop elsewhere after checking out the anchor’s store. Importantly, anchor tenants often do not share a part of their revenue with the mall because of the traffic they bring in, while all the other tenants usually pay a percent of their sales to the mall operator.
As traditional department stores go under, leaving many anchor tenant positions either vacant or uncertain, Apple is quickly becoming the best blue-chip anchor tenant. The company’s massive awareness and healthy cash position makes it a trustworthy bet.
But there’s one important difference: research shows that while Apple is driving a large amount of absolute foot traffic to malls, this traffic mostly goes to Apple stores and then leaves, rather than sticking around and shopping elsewhere. Because of this, Apple still has to pay a revenue share since its traffic is not as helpful to the rest of the mall as traditional anchor tenants.
Even so, Apple has still been able to masterfully negotiate the terms of its leases, often paying a very small revenue share—around 2%—compared to most other tenants paying close to 15%. If an Apple store sells $97 million of products a year, this is the difference between paying the mall operator just under $2 million or over $14 million—a big gap. At the same time, Apple stores can sometimes increase a mall’s overall sales by 10%.
How should malls view Apple?
Apple’s retail strength is hard to understate. Given that, it has assumed an immense amount of power as the new type of anchor tenant at malls around the world. But this presents a quandary for both mall operators and their tenants: Apple is a powerhouse from a traffic and sales perspective, but it’s a selfish powerhouse. It accrues most of the benefits itself.
To fight back against declining sales and foot traffic, many malls are adding more “experiences” such as better food courts, movie theatres—anything to get people to stick around like they used to.
But Apple, never one to be left behind and always one to outdo itself, is starting to refresh most of its stores around the idea of a “Town Square.” The goal is to create more events, classes, and attractions for people to come into Apple stores and just hang out. But in the same way Apple being an anchor tenant benefits Apple, this new strategy is meant to line its own coffers. Apple, therefore, is not the anchor tenant that will save malls. It’s main goal—understandably—is to save itself.
Malls will need to keep looking for new anchor tenants to replace their old ones. These companies likely won’t be the same ones that held down the fort in the old days—if they exist at all.