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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We're not too far into 2014, but already this year's been a tough one for some big retail chains. J.C. Penney is closing 33 stores. Macy's is laying off 2,500 workers and Sears announced it's closing its flagship store in Chicago this spring. The moves will mean a glut of excess space and as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, that's just one of several forces changing the face of retail.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Jason Moser focuses on one key number in retail: revenue per employee. In Amazon's case, every person the company employs generates an average of $800,000 in sales. For Best Buy? The number is much less than half that.
JASON MOSER: What that means is Amazon is able to do a lot more with a lot less.
NOGUCHI: Moser is an analyst at Motley Fool One. He says that inefficiency in legacy brick-and-mortar chains is bleeding some iconic brands.
MOSER: Does the world really need a Sears at this point? I mean, I don't think it really does, actually, and I think the numbers bear that out. And I think the same really goes for J.C. Penney.
NOGUCHI: Retail is, along with the rest of the economy, recovering. Vacancy rates at shopping centers are low. But analysts like Moser say that belies some dramatic changes going on in the industry.
MICHAEL BURDEN: And I think that over the course of the next decade, I am counting on the retail space to look very, very different than it does today.
NOGUCHI: Michael Burden agrees. Burden is a principal with Excess Space Retail Services, a company whose job it is to figure out what to do with unused retail space. He says the footprint of stores is shrinking because consumers are shopping online more. And technology has streamlined inventory systems, making them more efficient, so stores need far less room to keep stock.
BURDEN: And that translates into the need for less space.
NOGUCHI: And that is creating demand for what might be called smaller boxes as well as a dilemma as to what to do with some of the old big box space. Burden says some of it might be repurposed as warehouses for mega-retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart. But Burden says those in far out suburbs or in rural areas pose the greatest risk of becoming ghost boxes.
BURDEN: The more rural it is, the less likely that there is a need or an ability for another single tenant to come in and utilize the space. In those markets in particular, you are going to be looking at churches, bingo places, flea markets, medical uses, call centers.
NOGUCHI: One old Wal-Mart in suburban Milwaukee is now the Ridge Community Church. Lead pastor Mark Weigt says there was some skepticism about whether religion could fit in a space designed for retail. For starters, it meant sharing a plot with the new adjacent Wal-Mart.
MARK WEIGT: People to get to the new Wal-Mart actually drive through a driveway that's connected to our property.
NOGUCHI: But the location was central, and the cost unbeatable.
WEIGT: The beauty of a big box is once the demolition from the interior standpoint is taken care of, you just have to work around the posts.
NOGUCHI: Is there anything that looks reminiscent of a Wal-Mart now?
WEIGT: Most of it, oddly enough.
NOGUCHI: The old Subway sandwich shop took new form as the church kitchen. The floors and the ceilings were simply repainted. And the church plans to lease the remaining two-thirds of the still-unoccupied remaining space to other retailers. It's not just the buildings that are getting revamped. Maureen McAvey says there's a deeper shift happening where retail is becoming much more integrated with housing, especially in cities.
McAvey is a fellow at the Urban Land Institute, an urban planning nonprofit. She says in previous decades, homes, stores and offices were usually designed to be driving distances away from one another. Now, she says, that trend is reversing. You can find evidence of the trend in places like Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, a classic office park.
MAUREEN MCAVEY: That's having a new master plan being developed where it will become much more mixed use, adding shopping, adding restaurants, adding residential.
NOGUCHI: We are standing in another such example, the new Wal-Mart near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Above the store there are 200 residential units.
MCAVEY: Eighty percent of all the jobs in the country are basically in cities, and it's where the growth is.
NOGUCHI: So it's no surprise that retailers, including Wal-Mart and Target, are trying to adapt their models to suit urban areas, with their smaller, more expensive lots that don't have as much parking. Along another stop of our retail tour, McAvey stands in front of a construction site in Bethesda, Maryland slated for more mixed retail and residential development. She says demand from baby boomers and the millennial generation is also driving the remaking of city life.
MCAVEY: And on both sides of those demographic barbells, these are groups who want to be close to restaurants, they want to be close to places to exercise, and they don't want to be tied down to the yard and mowing grass and all of those things.
NOGUCHI: In decades past, McAvey says, people considered it declasse to live above a store. But social tastes change. And retail development simply follows that lead. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.