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RioCan REIT will re examine tenant mix, but says physical retail remains strong

People in motion in escalators at the modern shopping mall.

RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust is "pruning" its tenant mix to ensure malls and other retail spaces it owns are filled with resilient businesses that are best positioned to weather any further COVID-19 upheaval.

Chief executive Jonathan Gitlin said Thursday that the Toronto-based commercial landlord's close look at who is renting its spaces would result in the company shedding some assets in enclosed malls, "which are harder to evolve into today's current demands from our tenants."

"Within the properties that we are keeping, there is a tenant mix that in order to stay relevant and in order to stay on top of consumer trends, needs to continuously evolve and change," he said on a call with analysts.

"We are switching over to more necessity-based purveyors and in some cases, it might not be tenants with amazing covenants, but they just have some great uses that will add to...the flavour of the shopping centre."

Gitlin did not share which tenants could end up on the chopping block, but has often highlighted that the trust sees grocery, pharmacy and liquor store tenants, which make up just shy of 20% of the company's rent, as resilient.

His remarks come after Canadian retailers have spent roughly two years swinging between periods of intense lockdowns and cautious reopenings meant to quell the spread of COVID-19.

The rapidly changing restrictions have pushed many retailers to close their businesses entirely, rethink their brick-and-mortar strategies or struggle to pay rent and cover other bills.

"I am not going to downplay the challenges that the commercial real estate industry faced throughout the year," Gitlin said.

"2021 was volatile and tenant shutdowns lasted into the summer and there was numerous restrictions on retail throughout 2021. The year ultimately ended with additional disruption courtesy of Omicron."

But that volatility has yielded strength from many retailers and Gitlin said it had emphasized the importance of physical stores rather than diminishing brick-and-mortar shops like many expected when people moved to shopping online.

"Consumer behaviour confirms that Canadians want to control their shopping experience and physical retail stores will continue to play a critical part of their lives," he said.

"E-commerce and physical retail don't just coexist. They have got a relationship and there is every indication that well-placed, physical retail... plays a vital role in this relationship."

Those findings were borne out when the company reported Wednesday that its rent collection rate reached 98.6% in its most recent quarter, a slight climb from 96.2% at the same time last year.

Its committed occupancy level across its portfolio of about 207 properties totalled 96.8% in its fourth quarter, up from 95.7%.

Net income for the three months ended Dec. 31 amounted to $208.8 million, up from $65.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The results pushed the trust's stock up by 58 cents or almost three per cent to $23.25 in mid-morning trading.

Along with earnings, the company also provided an update on the Well, a much-anticipated commercial and office property it is building in Toronto.

The site is due to house several tenants, including Shopify Inc., and the trust said construction of commercial portions of the property was 82% complete.

About 90% of the office space and 50% of the retail space is leased. The retail component is slated to open in spring 2023.

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