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International buyers love German stores while shoppers don't

[BERLIN] German malls and stores are being snapped up by international buyers at the fastest pace since 2007 even as online shopping lures customers away from the country's bricks- and-mortar shops.

Almost 6 billion euros (US$6.7 billion) of retail properties were bought by foreign investors in the first half of this year, about three times more than in the same period of 2014, according to an estimate by BNP Paribas Real Estate. Shop sales fell 1 per cent last year and are forecast to slide again in 2015, according to GfK Group SE, a market researcher.

"The willingness to take risk has increased sharply," said Joseph Frechen, a Hamburg-based retail analyst at property research firm Bulwiengesa AG. "Some people say we're seeing the first signs of overheating."

Declines in footfall and signs that rent growth is stalling aren't deterring investors so far. Buyers of retail properties in Germany are earning yields of more than 3.5 per cent, compared with more than 2 per cent in the UK, according to BNP Paribas.

Investors including Blackstone Group LP and Colony Capital Inc. are being drawn by the nation's stable economy, cheap financing and one of Europe's largest markets, with retail sales of 408 billion euros last year.

Signs the market may be peaking are appearing in the rental market, with prime leases, which surged to a record in 2014, losing momentum and likely to end this year little changed, according to BNP Paribas.

Germany is one of six European countries with declining sales in physical stores, joining Switzerland, Finland, Greece and Cyprus, according to GfK.

"There's a lot of pressure to invest," said Joerg Krechky, head of German retail investments for Savills Plc. in Hamburg. "Some investors aren't looking at the online threat very closely because returns in German retail are still better than on sovereign bonds."

Many investors are buying supermarkets and do-it-yourself retail parks, which are cheaper and more resistant to the online threat, Mr Krechky said.

Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson's Bay inked the biggest deal this year with its acquisition of Kaufhof, Germany's largest department store chain, for 2.4 billion euros plus debt. Kaufhof's same-store sales fell 1.4 per cent last year and the company's property alone was valued at more than the purchase price.

New York-based Blackstone, which has US$93 billion of properties under management, is making its first foray into German retail, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. The world's largest private-equity firm agreed to buy 55 supermarkets for about 470 million euros, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

Colony Capital in June partnered with Hamburg Trust, a property asset manager that owns shopping centers in cities such as Stuttgart and Dortmund, with a commitment to invest in future projects.

"US and UK-based investors used to be focused on investing in London, but prices there have risen even more than here," said Dirk Hasselbring, chief executive officer at Hamburg Trust. "If you have a dominant shopping center in a good location, then it can go hand-in-hand with on-line shopping."

Investors also like Germany because there are so many retailers owners can be sure they'll always find the right mix of tenants, said Mr Hasselbring. Companies including H&M and Starbucks have more stores in Europe's largest economy than in any other country in the region excluding the UK, because it's considered a good entrance to the region.

Among the retailers suffering from slumping sales is Takko Fashion GmbH, which in March reported a 7.2 per cent year-on-year decline. Takko's bonds are among the worst performing in Europe, with the 9.875 securities quoted at 48 cents on the euro to yield 36.75 per cent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Most of the fashion discounter's 1,870 European shops are in Germany.

"Stores are suffering a bit from online sales, but it remains to be seen how much more online can grow," said Sven Stricker, head of investment at BNP Paribas Real Estate in Frankfurt. "Germany is a huge market and private spending overall is rising."