A Spot Too FarNovember/December 2006
by Tina Manzer
“Because America lives by the automobile, we live by the parking space, too,” says retail guru Paco Underhill in his book, Call of the Mall. “Enjoy a smooth transition from the highway to the front door and you feel blessed. Hit a snag, and you start your shopping trip under a black cloud.”
He’s so right. No matter where your store is located – in a suburban strip center or mall, on a busy downtown street or a stand-alone building – good parking is like gold. In today’s world, customers expect no less. That’s why when shoppers encounter one of Underhill’s “snags,” they may look for someplace else to shop where the parking is more to their liking.
A snag could be anything, but it all starts with accessibility: maybe your store’s parking lot is hard to find or get to, or you have on-street parallel parking only, or the closest lot is still too far away from your front door. Even when parking is already good, there’s still room for improvement. Mall parking is a good example.
Is mall parking the best?
Retailers in malls sing the praises of their seemingly infinite number of spots and easy access to and from their stores. “Convenience of parking is very important to a customer’s decision to visit our store,” said Darren Sygrove, owner of Parlor Casinos game and gift store in Phoenix. “We are in a regional shopping mall and the parking is very accessible, but if I could change anything, I would love to add a shuttle service to the remote parts of our parking lots. The holiday shopping season fills them to the brim.”
“We wouldn’t change anything because there is always plenty of parking,” said retailer Janet Blaha, about her Play ‘N’ Learn store located in Cedar Creek Mall in Rothschild, Wisconsin. “When we opened here in 2004, we liked the parking situation, the fact that our store is close to the main entrance, and the proximity of a variety of other retailers. We’re also on a major highway with easy on-and-off access. We think all of those factors make shopping at Play ‘N’ Learn appealing.”
While malls may give other merchants parking-lot envy, Paco Underhill sees room for improvement. “For all their knowledge and experience, few merchants or managers understand how much of the customer experience takes place in the parking lot,” he says in Call of the Mall. “Executives who would be appalled by a lack of regard for shopper comfort within the store don’t give a moment’s thought to what happens out here.”
To prove his point, he’ll drag executives from retail chains and developers out to the farthest extremes of the parking lot during his consultations with them. From there, Underhill has them look at the mall from the customer’s perspective, taking in the placement of the entrances, the signage, the window displays, and the stroll from the lot to the stores.
Is downtown parking the worst?
In contrast to mall parking-enthusiasts, downtown merchants are more reticent about their parking situations, which are a little more complicated.
“I do believe that there’s a stigma associated with parking in any downtown,” said Pat Jenson, president of Northwind Kites in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. “A lot of our customers ask if we have stores in suburban malls so that they don’t have to come down here and park!”
Dan Marshall, owner of Peapods Natural Toys & Baby Care in St. Paul, Minnesota, agrees. “I think most people are pleased with our parking availability. The only thing I’d change is the perception that our new customers seem to have, that because we are located in a city, parking must be problematic.”
Peapods’ location, in a neighborhood as opposed to a downtown, was chosen for its many parking options. “We deliberately chose a place where on-street parking is plentiful,” said Dan. “One of the nice things about old-fashioned neighborhood commerce is that the residential streets near our store have ample parking during our daytime store hours. Our landlord also maintains a parking lot behind the building, but most customers just park in front. Even if they’re parked on the next block, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. We will always happily carry items to a customer’s car.”
Northwind Kites, in a downtown as opposed to a city neighborhood, also has a workable parking arrangement. Pat says the store is in a mall with two parking garages attached by a crosswalk. They are municipal garages with round-the-clock security and maintenance. Mall security officers are available to walk shoppers to and from the garage any time they are requested to do so. “It has plenty of parking for most of the year, but the exit is always backed up at the holidays,” Pat said.
Merchants in other downtowns are not so lucky. Janet Blaha, a mall merchant quoted earlier in this article, operates a second store in downtown Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “There is parking in front of our store along the street and in the surrounding area parking lots,” she told us. “There may be times when the parking situation does not benefit our business. However, in most cases, it has not hurt it.
“We are actively involved with our downtown association and parking does get discussed,” Janet continued. “The perception of some community members is that we do not have enough parking downtown, but our studies show there is plenty of parking. Signs identifying parking lots would be helpful, and we always talked about illustrating somehow that the number of steps customers take to get to our stores downtown is less than the number of steps they take when they visit the big boxes.”
Signage problems are not uncommon for downtown locations. “Although we have a city parking garage fairly close to our museum shop, the walk from the garage is confusing. There are no signs indicating the way,” said Penny Bigmore, buyer for the museum shop at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. “Recently there have been some improvements so it is somewhat clearer. Because finding a place to park in our city is a challenge, we are fortunate to have the garage as close as it is.”
Paying for parking
Price continues to be a deterrent even as municipalities fight to bring more shoppers downtown. “We used to have a stamp from the city parking authority that paid for a customer’s first two hours of parking in the garage,” Pat Jenson from Anchorage told us. “It cost us about 52 cents per stamp. When they raised the rates, the cost to us went to 94 cents per stamp. The increase wasn’t that much, but we discovered that downtown visitors would ask us to stamp their parking ticket whether they were shopping in our store or not. Now we are considering a promotion that would credit a customer’s purchase by 75 cents or $1 if they parked in the garage.”
Many retailers believe that reimbursements do help to attract customers. At the Peabody Essex Museum shop, officials are considering providing a sticker for one free hour of parking for customers who spend $10 or more. In San Francisco, where customer parking for small businesses is hard to find and expensive, some stores keep a stash of quarters on hand to help customers feed their meters. It’s more of a convenience issue: one shopper pointed out that finding a parking spot is less of a problem than actually having the right change.
In terms of adding to the overall shopping experience, Paco Underhill believes downtown parking trumps mall parking every time. “Nobody enjoys a springtime stroll through a mall parking lot,” he said. “When you shop in a city, getting to your destination is an enjoyable part of the experience and may turn up some pleasant surprises along the way. All manner of information is gleaned, almost without noticing, when we walk down a city street. We see other store windows, of course, but also we get to study how people dress, how they wear their hair, what kind of dogs they walk. None of that exists in the parking lot of a mall.”
What makes parking perfect?
Every shopper has her own goals when it comes to parking. Some shoppers want to be as close to the front door as possible, others enjoy a walk. Competitive parkers stalk the best spots, and will keep circling an area for an empty space or follow other shoppers who look like they’re about to get into their cars and leave. Some parkers won’t go parallel, or higher than the second level in a parking garage, or on the street, or in a spot they have to back out of. Still others will park only in spots that are next to easy-to-find landmarks or under street lights.
While you can’t make everybody happy, there are some simple parking rules-of-thumb. First and foremost, if you have control over your parking, make sure your lot is well lit, well maintained and includes plenty of well-marked handicap spots. If you come up with ways to partially reimburse your paid-parking customers, whether it’s a small discount off their purchase price or a stamp on their parking slip, it always eases their pain. Make sure you promote that service! Since new customers often visit your website for directions anyway, post parking suggestions if your parking situation is less than ideal. Most of all, be a shopper yourself and consider your spots from their point of view.