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The great shopping mall rebirth has begun

Welcome to Buy/Sell/Hold, Marker’s weekly newsletter that’s 100% business intelligence and 0% investment advice. Each week, our writers Steve LeVine and Rob Walker make sense of the most important developments in business right now — and give them a Buy for clever moves or positive trends, a Sell for mistakes or missed opportunities, or a Hold if they’re noteworthy but too early to call.

🛍️ Why shopping malls must die to survive 🛍️

The Buy/Sell/Hold Analysis

Epic Games, best known as the developer of megahit game Fortnite, recently revealed that its new global headquarters will be… a mall. Specifically, the company is buying a 980,000-square-foot mall in its hometown of Cary, North Carolina, with plans to convert it into “offices and recreation space,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

That sounds like a fable invented to illustrate the economic shift from the physical to the digital. Or maybe it just sounds like a joke at the expense of mall cops and Orange Julius employees across the United States. But actually, it’s welcome news — and hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.

Malls were drastically overbuilt even before Covid-19 surfaced, but the pandemic dealt a body blow to the sector. The wave of retail closures forced some mall landlords to declare bankruptcy and underscored the declining prospects of weaker, aging shopping centers with less-convenient locations, second-tier tenants, and few amenities. By some estimates, a whopping 25% of all malls operating today could fail. So the time has come for a boom in former malls.

While the Epic Games news represents an exceptionally creative mall repurposing, that should be processed as inspiration, not limitation. The pandemic actually accelerated ongoing retail-reuse strategies, such as “dark stores” — basically converting brick-and-mortar space into e-commerce fulfillment centers. Chains like Whole Foods and Bed Bath & Beyond have experimented with the strategy, and Amazon was rumored to be weighing a deal to convert flailing JCPenney locations into distribution centers.

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Other experiments in mall conversion have cropped up in recent years, including the conversion of part of Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, Washington, into apartments, and part of Landmark Mall in Washington, D.C., into a homeless shelter. More recently, health care organizations across the country have reportedly begun converting defunct mall-stalwart Sears stores into vaccination centers.

To be sure, plenty of higher-end malls will survive and even thrive as the pandemic lifts and cooped-up consumers rediscover in-person shopping — especially when it’s paired with food and entertainment that deliver a real experience. That’s one reason the Mall of America, an ur-destination for shopping-as-experience, was recently able to rework its mortgage deal with lenders. This vision of an all-in-one megamall is what drives the likes of the phantasmagoric American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which boasts both a Nickelodeon Universe theme park and a DreamWorks Water Park.

But for weaker malls, it’s time to face reality: The shopping habits that built this singular sector have changed for good. A long-overdue shakeout is happening, and it can’t be survived with tweaks to the same old formulas. One way or another, lots of malls need to stop being malls.

Verdict: Buy

— Rob Walker

⚡ Lightning Round⚡

Amazon’s delivery ambitions reach new heights — literally. On Tuesday, the e-commerce giant announced it bought 11 used Boeing jets from Delta and WestJet to expand its Amazon Air fleet and its capacity to quickly ship its own cargo. It’s the latest move in the company’s ongoing war against FedEx, UPS, and the postal service and another clear indicator that despite increased antitrust concern in D.C., Amazon’s sights are set on nothing short of cornering the shipping industry and guaranteeing it remains the king of same-day delivery. Buy.

Roku prepares to enter the streaming wars wielding Quibi’s content. Quibi — Jeffrey Katzenberg’s failed streaming startup that shuttered just six months after launching — is in advanced talks to sell its content library to streaming device company Roku, reports the Wall Street Journal. By adding these original shows to its Roku Channel app, Roku could defend against the slew of new streaming platforms like NBC’s Peacock, which is modeling its subscription tiers around exclusive access to the hit sitcom The Office. But if Quibi’s demise is any indication, its original microseries may not be enough to give Roku a competitive advantage. It may instead consider the strategy of streaming startup Struum, which plans to offer individual shows and movies from different platforms without paying for multiple subscriptions. Sell.

Zoom may have won 2020, but Microsoft has its eyes on the long game. As remote workers scrambled to establish new digital workflows during the pandemic, along with videoconferencing, file management, chat, and other business communication platforms also surged. According to the Financial Times, Microsoft’s Teams platform grew dramatically during shutdowns, with daily active users rising from 13 million in mid-2019 to 115 million by the end of September 2020 — a roughly 800% jump in just over a year. Its Azure cloud business — a rival to Amazon Web Services — also grew last year, with revenue jumping 48% in the quarter ending September 30. As tech companies rush to map out post-pandemic strategies, Microsoft has made serious gains to maintain its sizable foothold in business software and services once conference rooms make a comeback. Buy.

Companies react to President Trump’s mob instigation with overwhelming censure. While the country waits to see if elected leaders decide to formally penalize or attempt to remove the president, corporations and business leaders have already taken action in response to Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol. By Wednesday night, the CEOs of Apple, IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Citi released statements condemning the insurrection, Twitter and Snapchat temporarily locked Trump’s accounts, and the National Association of Manufacturers called on Vice President Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment. On Thursday, some companies went even further: Facebook and Instagram said they would block Trump from posting for at least the remainder of his term, and Shopify permanently banned two official Trump merchandise stores from its platform. Buy.

📈 The Number: $29.5 billion

That’s gaming startup Roblox’s new valuation, following a $520 million private fundraising round this week.

Roblox — a platform that allows users to create their own games and socialize in virtual spaces like concerts and birthday parties — saw a sevenfold increase in valuation since its last funding round in February, Axios reports. Put in Roblox terms, the company is now worth nearly 3 trillion Robux, the in-game currency used by the platform. The company has seen rapid growth through the pandemic: It has more than 150 million monthly active users, and as Scott Galloway wrote for Marker, American kids spend an average of 2.6 hours a day on Roblox. Still, despite its popularity, the company has yet to turn a profit.

Roblox shelved its plans to go public in December, after other late-2020 IPOs like Airbnb and Doordash saw their stock prices soar immediately upon going public. While “pops” are often perceived as a sign of a successful IPO, as Tanay Jaipuria explained in Marker last July, they can also shortchange companies of capital and result in dilution. Companies looking to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional IPO can consider the direct listing as an alternative route to going public, and that’s now what Roblox intends to do, which means it will list shares without raising capital on the public markets. Palantir and Asana both went public via direct listing on the same day last September. Barring some technical glitches Palantir faced on the first day of trading, both companies seem to have successfully ridden the wave of 2020’s red-hot IPO market — and so far, it doesn’t look like Roblox has missed out on it by waiting to go public.

— Kaushik Viswanath, Senior Editor, Marker

📖 Marker Read of the Week: Can convenience store icon 7-Eleven convince Americans to love it just as much as the Japanese?

🔎 Marker’s New Fixation 🔎

Along with the usual mohair skirts and leather slingbacks, Prada’s stores are now offering luxury in an unexpected retail category: food storage. Late last year, the brand began selling a “stainless-steel sandwich box” featuring the iconic Prada logo — a collaboration between Prada and Black + Blum, a British designer of sustainable food storage containers and bottles — for a whopping $140. Fancy-schmancy Prada Tupperware is precisely the type of thing I am programmed to mock, but for once even I can see the virtues of selling such an object. For folks dying to own a genuine Prada product but unable or unwilling to shell out $1,000 for a turtleneck, this container not only scratches an itch but also serves a genuine purpose: It keeps your lunch safe and looks genuinely nice (nicer at least than any lunchbox I’ve ever owned). Compared to the half-baked brand collaborations you usually see — like aesthetically awkward Cole Haan x Slack sneakers or the ironic KFC Lifetime original movie — this one at least serves a purpose. Prada isn’t the first fashion company to enter this arena — Madewell, for example, sells minimalist bento boxes in collaboration with veteran Japanese brand Takenaka — but it is one of the fanciest, which means it would also be the ultimate return-to-the-office flex to impress newly reunited co-workers by pulling your egg salad on rye out of some Prada.

— Jean-Luc Bouchard, Senior Editor, Marker

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Bylines in Vox, VICE, The Paris Review, BuzzFeed, and more. Contributor to The Onion. Check out my work here: jeanlucbouchard.com.