What the Kohl’s Planet Fitness Deal Says About the Future of Gyms in Malls

Kohl’s customers will soon be able to squeeze in a workout during their next shopping trip.

The Wisconsin-based department store chain has inked a deal with Planet Fitness to lease out extra space in stores as it seeks to shrink its footprint, the company revealed Tuesday. The partnership will start as a pilot program in 10 stores across the country, with the opportunity to expand if it’s successful.

Kohl’s has more than 1,100 locations nationwide, and the announcement comes at a time when many traditional department stores are shuttering brick-and-mortar doors en masse to focus on e-commerce and their more profitable locations. Mall landlords have also been increasingly looking to the fitness industry to fill vacant space: According to data from commercial real estate research firm CoStar, the amount of space leased by fitness centers and gyms in malls and lifestyle centers increased about 70 percent between 2013 and 2018.

For its part, Planet Fitness is in the midst of an aggressive expansion plan: CEO Chris Rondeau said last week that the chain ultimately hopes to double its U.S. footprint to 4,000 locations. It topped CoStar’s list of tenants leasing the most new square footage in malls since the start of 2017.

“We see the Planet Fitness partnership as a real win-win,” Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass told analysts on an earnings call Tuesday. “This going to be a great fit for us and for our customers.”

The company topped earnings expectations, and several analysts voiced support for the partnership, which follows a deal last year to lease out extra space to the grocery chain Aldi.

Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen reiterated the firm’s “outperform” rating, saying it is “encouraged by Kohl’s numerous initiatives and tests” to drive sales momentum in 2019. “Also, we like the strategy to lean further into active, especially partnering with Planet Fitness to build gyms next to Kohl’s stores. We believe this strategy makes sense for both companies and anticipate openings beyond the initial 10 locations.”

Last year, the Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based chain firmed up plans for shrinking hundreds of stores from their standard size of 90,000 square feet.

“If you believe you can leverage your stores optimally to fulfill customers’ demand online, then having more stores is better than having fewer stores,” CEO Kevin Mansell explained to investors in March 2018 during a conference call. “Now, at the same time, our stores are less profitable, right? … You can’t ignore [that] fact … so running them more productively becomes the priority. As we’ve thought about this, our strategies are driven by this idea to maintain our store portfolio — maybe even have more stores but [make them] smaller.”

The company said it would run hundreds of its 90,000-square-foot stores like small-format stores to test the idea. As it tracks the success of the concept, it said it would start to physically shrink those locations — and in some cases lease or sublet the remaining square footage to retail partners such as Aldi.

With retail closures hitting record highs, Kohl’s likely won’t be the last to try these types of strategies, so the industry will no doubt be watching closely to see how it fares as the chain starts to has become a pioneer of sorts when it comes to new-age store strategies in retail.

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