Don’t call it a retail apocalypse, call it a retail revolution.
That’s the mantra that Nicole Liebman lives by as a broker working in retail in New York City.
Like most brokers and those in the retail industry, she takes an optimistic view of the sector and thinks that talk of traditional retail’s demise are way overblown. In fact, she said the current state of the industry is long overdue.
“We see and hear that [retail] is dying and there are so many vacancies,” Liebman told Real Estate Weekly. “I really take the opposite approach. It is in transition. Change brings innovation and brings new life to an industry that was a bit stale and stagnant.”
A broker at Hudson Real Estate, Liebman focuses her business on youthful brands and tenants that are modern, sustainable, and have a smaller roster of stores.
Many of her projects have been in trending areas of Brooklyn, like 1 Hotel, Gowanus Inn & Yard, and Arlo Hotel. She has worked with fitness brands Poe Yoga and CorePower Yoga, as well as Greenpoint Brewery. Recently, Liebman arranged leases in Downtown Brooklyn for Sanpanino, an Italian sandwich shop, and About Coffee, a coffee shop born out of SoHo. “I work with less famous ‘cool’ brands. I think that with the 1 Hotel, their values align with what I do, and the same with Arlo Hotel,” said Liebman.
“We’ve been going after interesting tenants. Even nail salons can be elevated.” As the industry adapts to the sea change of online retailers and shifting shopping habits, long-running brands will need to get hip to survive, said Liebman.
“Older brands lost brand identity,” she said. “They didn’t have good customer experience and didn’t integrate online, made it uncomfortable to walk into the store and didn’t keep it fresh and interesting. It’s a baby you have to constantly change. And if you don’t change, you better have a really, really great product and great customer service, or have prices be the lowest of the low.”
Before landing in real estate, Liebman worked in advertising and marketing with clients like Nike and Google. The aspects that she loved about the industry turned out to align perfectly with retail real estate.
“I was basically running a lot of events around the country,” she said. “I loved negotiating, I loved really understanding what people’s needs are.”
When she took the leap into real estate, she started in retail leasing at Massey Knakal, the commercial real estate firm led by Bob Knakal and Paul Massey that was later purchased by Cushman & Wakefield.
Growing up, real estate was always in Liebman’s orbit. Born and raised in New York, she later lived for a time in France and Philadelphia. Her uncle is a developer and landlord in the Washington, D.C. area, and one of her biggest mentors.
“In your family, you always have a few people you want to emulate,” said Liebman. “He is such a mensch and a good soul, works hard but has a good work/life balance. I think subconsciously you gravitate toward those people you want to become when you get older.”
In the current New York retail market, Liebman has seen traditionally downtown tenants looking more closely at the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side.
“They like the captive audience,” she said. “Flatiron is still hot. Even Tribeca with all those new condos, all that retail is going to get gobbled up.”
Meanwhile, in Downtown Brooklyn, retail is being dramatically overhauled.
“Cooler tenants are coming to Livingston Street,” said Liebman. Retailers like Devotion Coffee, Chelsea Piers, Apple, and Whole Foods 365 have all signed on to the neighborhood. “This was an area literally left in the dust. It’s been fun to watch that evolution.”
Liebman said she was just recently hired on a few “big” assignments, but couldn’t talk about the details yet. In the future, she looks to some day own her own real estate in NYC.
“I love buildings and bricks and the tangibility of everything,” she said. “People say don’t fall in love with the bricks, but I do.”