It has been said that Britain never stops shopping. But in recent weeks, that has looked more true of investors buying shopping centres than of consumers snapping up the goods they stock. Three deals have been announced, even as low wage growth and high inflation have kept a tight lid on retail sales.
CSC's rationale remains unknown - the company is still in discussion with the minority owner of Broadmarsh and is reluctant to explain itself until talks are concluded. (An explanation is needed: CSC already owns a much larger shopping centre in Nottingham and has submitted plans to expand it by Christmas 2015 at a cost of £225m-£250m). But the other two deals are bargain acquisitions by companies taking a calculated risk.
"There are a lot of towns that long-term don't have a future, but there are also a few good value centres," says Duncan Walker, Helical's investment director. He claims rents in Corby are affordable - a crucial point because many retailers, strangled by bullish leases they signed in 2005-2007, are closing outlets. And he thinks the outlook for spending is positive: Corby was the fastest-growing town in England and Wales last year, thanks to a new railway station and a council that likes housebuilding. At the right price - a rental yield of 8 per cent - Helical was therefore prepared to buy.
NewRiver Retail's managers paint a similar picture of the Witham centre. They are particularly pleased with the price, which was 60 per cent below what the vendor paid in 2007 - though they will have to spend money on refurbishment after years of neglect. Both companies insist their acquisitions were predicated purely on rental cash-flow rather than development profits, but both sites also come with opportunities for expansion that could boost returns in time.
Helical Bar and NewRiver are both entrepreneurially-managed property companies, and if these contrarian bets pay off they will make shareholders a lot of money. But as retailers downsize, managers will have to work hard just to maintain cash flow. With little sign of recovery in either retail or the secondary property market, there's no immediate rush to buy their shares.