Those responsible for the car parks at retail destinations are keen on saying “the experience starts in the car park”, and although it has always been that way, it wasn’t until fairly recently that shopping centre landlords and managers began to think about the car park as part of the shopper journey.
Traditionally, the car park ‘experience’ involved driving into a dark, dank mass of concrete full of potholes and puddles, difficulty finding a space and on leaving, a queue at the payment terminals for which you never had the right change – it was a deflating one. Many shopping centre car parks are more pleasant now - well maintained, light and bright, and safer, with helpful staff, systems that direct you to the nearest available parking space, convenient payment options and bigger spaces to accommodate the modern car.
At Q-Park managed sites, customer service is delivered in many forms, from on-site hosts to informational signage and assistance buttons. And their car parks offer a number of convenient services including umbrella and baby buggy hire, restroom facilities, car wash services and informational boards. They are also prepared for emergencies with jump starters and heart defibrillators kept on-site.
“Offering a friendly service is imperative to providing a good parking experience,” explains Q-Park managing director, Adam Bidder. “Customers are welcomed at our sites through a meet and greet service and our hosts are available to help customers with pay machines, general queries and breakdown problems. It is reassuring to know that a member of staff is regularly patrolling the car park, keeping it clean and tidy and looking after a customer’s vehicle.”
In short, Bidder says, customers expect clean, well lit facilities, which are easily accessible and within a close proximity to the shops.
When it comes to access, entering the car park is the first taste many visitors get of the shopping centre brand and being able to access a space with ease is vital to the first impression. And with research by parking technology specialists, Parkeon, finding that at any given time around 30 per cent of motorists in towns and city centres are looking for an on-street parking space, it’s little wonder that many prefer shopping centre locations with easier access to parking.
“In the past, parking was seen as a distressing part of the shopping experience,” says Lionel Ball, key account & senior sales manager UK & Ireland, at Parkeon. “It’s often the first touch point for customers so you have to make it part of the experience. It’s really changing.”
Technology can play a big part in customers’ parking experience, and Parkeon has developed a range of flexible parking systems, designed to combine convenience for motorists with a return on investment for centre and car park operators where parking charges are in place.
“Efficient off-street parking can be a true ‘win-win’ for the whole urban environment in terms of easing congestion, encouraging retail business and enhancing the experience of consumers,” says Danny Hassett, director, Parkeon UK & Ireland.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) is the technological advance that has most affected the way people park in the last few years – with digital equipment tracking vehicles as they enter and leave the car park, doing away with the need for both barriers (if appropriate) and tickets.
Pay and display, now defunct in most shopping centre car parks, was unsuitable because it determined how long people spent shopping. As Ball points out, visitors had to guess how much to pay depending on how long they planned to stay and often had to rush back to their cars to avoid a ticket, rather than spending more time in the shops.
Parkeon recently installed its ParkREG ANPR system at New Square in West Bromwich. Cameras positioned at each of the entry lanes record the number plate and vehicle; information that acts as a virtual ticket and is stored in a database.
The centre’s visitors pay for their parking on exit by keying in the last three digits of their number plate at one of the payment terminals and selecting the photo of their vehicle on screen, to enable the system to calculate how much needs to be paid.
“ANPR and pay on exit are much easier than pay and display,” says Ball. “If it’s a barrierless system and someone forgets to pay, the system recalls their details and they are sent a letter. The first communication would read something like ‘You forgot to pay this time’ and explain how parking works at that particular venue. It’s much more customer friendly than it used to be.”
“The convenience of such barrierless systems can be a positive factor in driving up economic activity,” adds Hassett. “For end users at West Bromwich, ParkREG means no queuing on entry or exit, which speeds up through-put at busy times, and this ease-of-access encourages visits to the centre.”
Offering a pre-booking service can be another string to a centre’s bow, allowing regular visitors to pre-book a parking space online from the comfort of their sofa, and designating preferential spaces nearest the shops to disabled visitors.
“People want to drive in and out without having to find a payment terminal, and ANPR allows people to do that,” explains Ball. “They can book from their home PC and know before they arrive at the destination they’re guaranteed a space. There’s no ticket so when you arrive, you go and do your thing, and when you’re ready to go, you just leave - it’s seamless.
“You could even go to your local shopping centre, park and not have to worry about paying until you get home, as long you pay by midnight – a bit like the Congestion Charge. Or you could pay monthly. ANPR and pre-booking is the way forward.”
Another benefit is that facilitating pre-booking reduces the need for hardware, with fewer payment units and fewer cash collections.
Paying by mobile phone is the next step and Parkeon has its own mobile phone payment service called Whoosh! - which reads visitors in, opens the barriers and checks whether or not they have complied on leaving – giving people as many means to pay as possible, so they can chose what suits them.
“The payment system is obviously an intrinsic part of the customer experience; coin, cash and card payment terminals are de rigeur, but they have their issues, especially in relation to queues,” says Keith Williams, group product manager at WPS. “What is becoming increasingly popular nowadays is the use of payment apps that enable shoppers to scan their tickets and pay for their parking direct from their mobile phones.
“There are challenges, however, in providing customers with the conveniences that current and future technologies allow for,” he warns. “As with Transport for London’s Oyster Card, there are customers who want to use coins and traditional payment methods and offering numerous options can be inefficient and impractical. It’s crucial to ensure that systems are intuitive and approachable. They must be easily understood if they are to become readily adopted.”
“Linking parking with all the technologies people use in everyday life is the way forward but you also have to cater to those who don’t use computers and mobile phones,” adds Ball, pointing out that a third of the population is retired. “In order to cater for all motorists, there should be low tech as well as hi-tech options, it should be accessible and usable, and the equipment has to suit the venue – no one size fits all.”
Beyond offering ease, speed and convenience, parking equipment can boost the customer experiences in other ways, with the functionality to enable retailers to develop commercial offers linked to parking. Hassett believes shopping centre operators are becoming increasingly alive to the retail channel opportunities presented by parking technologies.
“Parking can be an innovative route to consumers for retailers,” he says, “particularly with information and payment systems shared via mobile and app technology.”
Parkeon is working closely with Mastercard to link the retail world with parking-based offers, enabling stores to push parking discounts or product offers directly to the payment terminals or mobile phone users to drive footfall and spend.
And Q-Park has a number of local partnerships in place with businesses such as restaurants and hair salons, whereby customers can show their parking ticket and receive a discount when they visit a partner venue.
“Customers are not only receiving a quality parking experience, but we are offering them added value when they visit facilities in the surrounding area, helping to increase footfall within the local vicinity,” says Bidder.
Another added service that can be offered by payment terminals – or dedicated help points – is information, with maps showing the way to a desired shop or restaurant or to the nearest toilets, for example.
But customer experience isn’t just about the latest tech.
Paul Rich, centre manager of Cwmbran Shopping in South Wales, believes that technology isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to good customer service and that high quality management plays a bigger part in people’s experience when parking.
“Customer service in car parks is something that can be overlooked, but for many visitors it is the first and last point of contact and an integral part of the customer journey,” he says. “But I’m not overly convinced of the benefits of technology. Our car parks aren’t filled with up to date technology but we’ve made a lot of tweaks on the management side over the last 12 months and we’ve seen results – it’s important to keep it nice and simple.”
He says technology can overcomplicate things and gives an example: Cwmbran used to have a space finding system with red and green lights indicating availability above each bay but they found that visitors arriving by car were able to find a space without hassle anyway, rendering it unnecessary and they took it out.
Forty-nine per cent of visitors to Cwmbran arrive by car with in excess of 85,000 cars parking at one of its six car parks every week. Small operational tweaks - made in response to issues identified through thorough monitoring - have increased vehicle churn in some areas to six-seven times a day where once it was once or twice. And one of the car parks has seen a usage uplift of 30 per cent.
According to Rich, Cwmbran’s shoppers tend to return four or five times a week and often aim for the same car park and space, so for him, enabling visitors to park where they want to is a key aspect of customer service.
“There’s nothing worse than not being able to get in a space that you’re comfortable with,” he says. “People are peculiar like that, we want our usual space – and we don’t want to roam around trying to find one.”
The team tackled this twofold, monitoring usage via footfall counters near the car park entrances to enable them to check whether any drops in footfall in a particular area relate to a car park problem, and monitoring themselves, with a member of management visiting the various car parks on a monthly basis and watching how it is used.
When Rich joined the centre in January 2013, Monmouth car park had seen reduced footfall in the last two quarters of 2012 - interestingly, statistics thrown up by footfall counters and not the car park’s vehicle counters – and it was something he was keen to remedy.
The root cause of the problem was the opening of a new Morrisons store on the vicinity of the town. Tenants who used to park on the plot of the new supermarket changed their habits, and without understanding the impact on trade, began parking all day in Monmouth, strangling churn.
Rich consulted the centre’s landlord, M&G, tenants and residents and changed Monmouth from a 12 hour stay car park to a four hour one. And it did the trick, with a 100 per cent recovery in footfall and a 30 per cent uplift in car throughput in certain months over and above the base level.
And it is just one example: “It’s about control,” says Rich. “One of our car parks is small and can get congested so we imposed a two hour maximum stay to encourage turnover. And our primary car park near the shops is four hour maximum stay, encouraging churn.
“Staff and office workers are encouraged to use the tertiary 12 hour car parks so that visitors can park nearest the shops. And that’s something we educate through tenant meetings.”
On the customer-facing side, the centre has brought car park management in-house, training the cleaning and security staff who patrol the car parks to undertake a customer service role, helping visitors to find a particular shop or facility, offering advice and generally making people feel welcome.
“Customer experience is simple,” says Rich. “It’s about easy access and egress, good lighting, signage and appearance, capturing people’s attention with added value services like car valet, and well trained staff asking shoppers whether they need help with their bags. These are the things we need to maintain to keep people keep coming back to us.”
For Rich, another way to appeal to your customers and encourage repeat visits is to offer free parking, although he has experience of working with both free and revenue-generating shopping centre car parks and admits there are two sides of the story with many landlords preferring to charge visitors.
“Statistically in the short term people don’t mind paying £1 for an hour but more than that, and many would prefer to walk a distance from a neighbouring cheaper or free car park – it’s a psycological thing. ‘Free’ has that feel good factor, there’s nothing to worry about, you don’t have to have find change to pay and you don’t have to rush back to your car when your time’s run out – people worry about falling into the next tariff bracket and it’s risky. We get lots of great feedback about our free parking on TripAdvisor and we’ll do everything we can to avoid switching to paid parking.”
When it comes to improving standards, all Q-Park car parks have feedback stands which encourage customers to rate the car park facilities and leave any comments about their parking experience.
“This information is vital to managing our car parks efficiently, allowing us to resolve any problems and meet customer expectations based on actual reviews,” says Bidder.
As for the future on the technology side, WPS’s Williams says the most important factor in creating seamless customer experiences is interconnectivity, as he concludes: “Providing practical and efficient systems that allow interconnectivity between loyalty schemes, free space guidance, car location, payments and access control, undoubtedly has its challenges, but is the area where investment is crucial.”