International companies staking out U.S. turf at ReCon

A shopper exits Forever21 at the Fashion Show on the Las Vegas Strip on Monday, May 23, 2016, in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS - Foreigners love shopping in America, especially in this desert burg dubbed Sin City.

"There's nothing like it in Mexico," said Jessica Torres, 23, of Puerto Vallarta, who was in the United States on a student visa and was visiting the Las Vegas Strip last week.

Likewise, foreign retailers have become increasingly infatuated with the idea of making it big here.

It's about supply and demand: Very few new malls are being built in the U.S., but there's plenty of growing demand among international retailers to come here, say mall experts.

They've watched the success of their foreign brethren - H&M of Sweden, Zara of Spain, Uniqlo of Japan, and, most recently, Primark of Ireland, all "fast fashion" or high-volume, value-oriented retailers - and want a piece of the American action.

As traditional inhabitants such as Sears, JC Penney, Macy's, and the Gap retreat from the malls, their spaces become available, and the pluckiest foreign firms want them.

This year's International Council of Shopping Centers convention, ReCon for short, showed the growing interest. A growing part of the 35,000-plus who descended on Vegas came from overseas.

There were 783 international attendees, up from 731 last year. There were 20 foreign-based exhibitors, double last year's number.

Those who sent the most were Mexico, the United Kingdom, and China.

The international invasion will likely continue, said Todd Sussman, senior vice president of retail for Colliers, who represents tenants and is based in Philadelphia.

Sussman was booked every 30 minutes at ReCon, meeting with clients and owners "trying to fit square pegs into round holes." He also mixed it up with developers on their vision for their shopping centers.

Sussman met with a brand from Russia coming into the U.S. within the next six months. He said he couldn't disclose the name of the retailer.

He expects the foreign influx to intensify. "It is a trend," Sussman said. "A lot of the larger retailers are trying to catch millennials."

The success of the fast fashion retailers "has certainly paved the way for international tenants to join their contemporaries and venture into the U.S., predominantly into the first-tier urban markets," said Douglas Green, managing principal of MSC Retail Inc. in Center City. "We anticipate the tremendously strong demand will only increase headed into the second half of this year."

Jose Luis Martinez de Larramendi, president of Primark U.S., is hoping sales continue to be as strong in the second half of the year as in the first half.

Primark has leased space in former Sears stores on the East Coast, including the one at King of Prussia Mall, and soon Willow Grove Park Mall.

The first American Primark opened in downtown Boston last fall.

"Early trading at our two stores in the U.S. has been encouraging, with very positive customer feedback," Martinez said. "Footfall and sales density have increased steadily, as awareness of the Primark brand, which started at a low level, continues to grow."

Primark also plans to open stores in Danbury, Conn., and Freehold, N.J., this year.

Mark Burlton, who oversees CBRE Inc.'s retail practice in Europe, spends a lot of time with European retailers strategizing about how to expand into the U.S. market (Primark is a client) and vice versa, taking U.S. brands to Europe.

He called Primark's U.S. move, "an absolute winner."

"With Primark it made sense to limit their expansion to the Northeast corridor for its first stores," he said. "The Northeast has four seasons like Dublin. They need to build up to a market like Miami.

"The next 12 months will absolutely seal their position" in the U.S., Burlton added. "They will need to take a period to reflect and learn key trends in the U.S. market and push on with the rest of the market. Early indications are they will be tremendously successful."

Burlton offered some cautionary advice for those wanting to follow Primark's footsteps:

"It costs money to get product over here, more money to compete with the internet and have the store more experiential," he said "The particular streets are very small, so when there's a high demand for a small number of locations, real estate shop costs will go up; going to the other side of the Atlantic means higher shipping costs; and there's currency fluctuations to take into account.

"Going to the U.S. is not a slam dunk just because it's the most successful economy in the world," Burlton said. "A retailer has to have bandwidth - the right strategy prior to entering the U.S. - and isn't a hit-from-hope retailer."

Joe Coradino, CEO of mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, negotiated with Primark to move into his firm's Willow Grove Park Mall, where it will open July 19.

He said Primark and H&M were occupying what he refers to as the "end zones of malls - close to the 20-yard line" - because of their large scale and foot traffic right where many people enter the mall.

"They're a great retailer," Coradino said of Primark. "They really get it. Unfortunately, they are doing it at the expense of the Gap."