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Shopping center vacancy rates remain stuck above 10 percent

ORLANDO

The shopping center vacancy rate remains stuck at 10.7 percent this summer despite bay area retailers snapping up the remnants of empty big box storefronts.

With minimal new development on the horizon and an economy stuck in neutral, all the action is centered on the few opportunistic retailers trading up by seizing on slumping rent for good locations, according to a market update released Monday at the Florida Dealmaking Conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

To be sure, the strongest shopping destinations such as West Shore in Tampa continue to get stronger, while weaker ones such as downtown St. Petersburg struggle.

"It feels better than five months ago, but there's still a lot of caution out there," said John Crossman, whose Orlando real estate firm manages 100 Publix shopping centers.

Gaping big box vacancies are slowly being filled. Dick's Sporting Goods is rebuilding a vacant Allbertons in Countryside. Sweetbay Supermarket just remodeled a former Publix in East Lake Woodlands after Publix moved into a bigger former Albertsons nearby. Pet Supermarket took over half of a Jo-Ann Fabrics in the University Collection in Tampa.

With empty Borders bookstores joining the ranks of empty Circuit City, Hollywood Video and Linens n' Things, more retailers have surfaced to cut empty boxes up into smaller pieces.

Save-A-Lot, Cato, Tuesday Morning, LA Fitness and Party City outlined aggressive plans to bulk up their Florida presence over the next 18 months in reconfigured space.

More ominous, however, was a University of Florida survey of 300 state real estate professionals asking about emerging market trends. The index took a turn down for the first time in more than a year.

"After what's happened the past four weeks, people are feeling uncomfortable about what's happening in Washington, D.C., and with the economy," said Tim Becker, director of the UF real estate program. "When business deals with that much uncertainty, they do not spend money."

Styling online. Bringing a tech touch to an industry trapped in a time warp, Great Clips claims the hairstyling industry's first online check-in.

Customers at 1,400 U.S. salons — 33 of them in the Tampa Bay area — can now check the waiting time for walk-ins at any location an hour in advance. You can put your name on the waiting list to avoid sitting around thumbing through dog-eared magazines. And for those in sudden need of a cut, greatclips.com has a smart phone app.

"It's new, but a third of our customers already use it," said Ronnie Lawson, who manages a Great Clips in St. Petersburg.

Forest for the trees. Office Depot has stopped putting small contract business orders in cardboard boxes in a move the Boca Raton retailer says will save 20,000 trees a year, along with the cost of thousands of plastic air pillows used for cushioning.

Individual products that come in cardboard will remain that way. But any combined order that totals less than 20 pounds will be wrapped in a paper bag made from 40 percent recycled material and delivered in a reusable tote. Office Depot will shift to paper bags unless customers prefer the old way.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Shopping center vacancy rates remain stuck above 10 percent 08/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 22, 2011 9:44pm]

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