Phoebe Scott of Orange County, Calif., has a new routine before heading to the mall.
She checks the parking lots on her ParkMe smartphone app “so that I can see what I’m up against or if I need to change my plans.”
If a lot is less than 90 percent full, the trip is on. Her favorite, not far from her workplace, is a garage at Santa Monica Place mall, where sensors and lights guide her to a specific open space.
“It’s a daily battle,” said Scott, 29, founder of Laudville, a social technology startup. “Anything to make it easier makes a really big difference.”
The search for a mall parking spot is growing easier thanks to the proliferation of new technologies, from apps and sensors to color-coded lights and electronic boards.
It’s one way that malls and shopping districts are trying to lure customers away from their computers, into the realm of their brick-and-mortar stores.
When no parking spots are available, “people drive around and become frustrated,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “Who wants to start their shopping experience frustrated?”
ParkMe, which tracks more than 28,000 locations worldwide, has emerged as a mainstay app for mall customers navigating the nation’s parking lots. With the app, they can find the closest and least expensive lots, as well as alternative garage entrances. The app’s user base surged 97 percent in the past year as it added hundreds of garages to its database.
“If there’s a way to get in off the beaten path, you can reduce stress,” said Sam Friedman, ParkMe’s co-founder and chief executive.
The app’s technology is simple enough: A magnetic loop at the garage clocks the number of times the gate lifts to admit or release a car, Friedman said. ParkMe also lets a customer reserve a spot in certain locations. Scott said she used that service during busy summer months.
Other parking apps are gaining traction as well. Parkopedia, which is linked to 26,000 lots in North America, also allows users to search parking sites, availability and prices using their smartphones. QuickPay plans to start in hundreds of U.S. malls next year to help shoppers pay for garage and metered spots and valet services from their smartphone.
“Parking is the gateway to the shopping experience,” said QuickPay’s founder, Barney Pell. “It can mean the success or failure of your whole business.”
Customers expect more than they did 10 years ago, said Casey Jones, a vice president for institutional services at Standard Parking, a Chicago-based provider of parking facility management services, and a past chairman of the International Parking Institute.
“They want real-time information; they want price choices, and they want to be directed to an open space,” Jones said.
No data are available on the number of mall garages outfitted with sensors to help keep track of vacant spots, but analysts say the rate of adoption is doubling or tripling year over year.
Taubman Centers, which owns and manages 22 U.S. malls, installed sensors in the garages in two of its centers to show shoppers on which floors they could find open parking spots. Installation costs $50,000 to $100,000 per location.
But parking is only half the battle. When a customer is ready to leave, there is the matter of finding the car.
Simon Property Group, the country’s largest mall owner and operator with more than 300 properties, said that use of its free app, which includes a feature that helps shoppers locate their parked car, had increased eightfold in the past two years.
Users can take a picture of where their car is parked, drop a pin on a map or send a text message reminding themselves where they parked.
“It’s a proactive tool to prevent a customer from losing her car,” said Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Property Group.
It’s not just malls but also downtowns and local shopping districts that are striving to make parking easier. San Francisco, for example, with its notoriously difficult on-street parking, created its own app that steers drivers to open spots.
Garages “used to be about parking cars,” said Jones of Standard Parking. “Now we’re a service industry.”