Amazon. com Inc.’s decision to throttle back on its e-commerce operations threatens to slow the growth of the industrial-space sector, one of the hottest areas of commercial property.
For now, demand from other retailers is expected to pick up the slack, supporting warehouse occupancies and rent levels, analysts say.
Rents, occupancy levels and sales volume of industrial real estate were already rising before Covid-19. They have soared even higher during much of the pandemic, as retailers led by Amazon, Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. gobbled up record amounts of space at warehouses and distribution centers.
These growth trends are slowing in some markets, in part because Amazon is now subleasing warehouse space after reporting in April its slowest growth in about two decades. Amazon is one of the largest users of U.S. industrial space, owning or leasing some 374 million square feet at the end of 2021, according to MWPVL International Inc., a Canadian supply-chain consultant that tracks Amazon demand.
The company went on an expansion tear during the pandemic to make sure it could keep up with the sharp rise in demand from homebound consumers. Its slowdown is likely to disappoint some developers who had been hoping to lease projects under way to Amazon.
Property owners in some markets might also face new competition from Amazon’s plan to sublease at least 10 million square feet of warehouse space, and possibly as much as triple that amount over time, as well as a flood of new supply from developers responding to the strong industrial market. Before the Amazon news, real-estate-analytics firm Green Street had been projecting about 400 million square feet of new industrial development in 2022.
“Amazon’s sublease space is a new form of supply,” said Vince Tibone, a Green Street analyst. “All of a sudden, a lot of it just became unleashed.”
Even so, analysts say the industrial-property market remains healthy thanks to low vacancies and demand that remains strong from other retailers and big users such as Walmart, FedEx Corp. and DHL. Rents continue to grow in most markets as many companies add warehouse capacity to stock up more goods and avoid supply-chain logjams.
“Other supply-chain companies are still ramping up, which is likely to offset the negative effect from Amazon,” said Evan Serton, a senior portfolio specialist at Cohen & Steers Inc., a global investment firm.
Equus Capital Partners Ltd., a private-equity firm, has already rented out more than half of the 11 million of industrial space that it has in the pipeline in high-growth states such as Arizona, Florida and Virginia, according to Kyle Turner, director of investments.
“You start doing the site work, pouring the foundation and the tenant comes along and you lease it,” Turner said.
Still, real-estate-services firm CBRE Group Inc. is projecting that leasing volume this year will be 850 million square feet, down from last year’s record 1 billion square feet, partly because of limited supply.
Investor appetite for shares of industrial-space companies also has dampened recently. Shares of industrial real-estate investment trusts are down an average of about 22% this year compared with 13% for the broader REIT index and about the same for the S&P 500, according to Green Street. Prologis Inc., the largest industrial REIT, is down even more than the average partly because of negative market reaction to its proposed acquisition of rival Duke Realty Corp.
Sales volume of industrial property fell to $6.5 billion in April, down 43% compared with the same month last year, according to MSCI Real Assets. Market participants say that a large part of that decline was because of rising interest rates, which erode returns by increasing debt costs.
Market volatility and rising rates are leading some buyers to request new terms on signed deals.
“We’re seeing some negotiations surrounding some assets that have gone under contract,” said Ken Hedrick, executive managing director of Newmark Group Inc., a commercial-property-services firm.
Amazon’s expansion of logistics centers went into hyperdrive when the pandemic hit. At the time the warehouse market was already tight because of the growth of online retail in the years leading up to March 2020.
“If I put you in charge of Amazon and the world was shutting down, the first thing that goes through your head is: ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to have orders exploding. We’ve got to do everything to grab as much capacity and space that we can get,’ ” said Marc Wulfraat, president of MWPVL.
Amazon’s portfolio of U.S. industrial space swelled from 275 million square feet at the end of 2020 to 374 million square feet at the end of 2021, according to MWPVL. Before the recent news of Amazon’s slowdown, MWPVL projected that Amazon would grow this year to 460 million square feet. MWPVL has now reduced its 2022 forecast to 430 million, an increase over last year but not as much as previously predicted.
“It’s like a freight train going down the tracks. You can’t stop on a dime,” Mr. Wulfraat said.