MINNEAPOLIS — Hunting for a parking space at the Mall of America? Think digital.
The Bloomington mall is trying to minimize the hassle by offering parking updates on its website, Twitter feed and interactive road signs.
You can download to your smartphone a color-coded map that shows the congestion levels of the mall's parking lots. The information is collected by electronically counting vehicles as they enter and leave the lots, followed by visual updates from parking employees who watch the flow of traffic.
The Mall of America's parking strategy is aligned with a national trend for shopping malls, which see shoppers' parking experiences as one of the key ingredients in attracting customers.
"People are more accustomed to having information at their fingertips to move them on to the next thing in their day," said Rachael Marret, president of the Campbell Mithun advertising agency in Minneapolis. "The speed at which everything is happening continues to accelerate, and we probably don't have as much patience as we used to."
Meanwhile, the Mall of America is in its third year of using Twitter messages (@MallofAmerica) to inform visitors about mall parking conditions.
"I believe the Twitter feed is the most popular parking-related service, because we have a fair number of people talking about our updates, referring their friends to our Twitter posts and a lot of retweets of our updates," said Bridget Jewell, a mall spokeswoman.
The effort seems to have struck a chord with local consumers, who tweet about deciding whether to shop at the mall based on the traffic situation. In response to a mall tweet urging shoppers to come as early as 8 a.m. to avoid crowds and traffic, one woman tweeted: "Maybe I will. Had to abort plans (Sunday). Too many cars!"
The Mall of America is the largest retail mecca in the United States. On a busy shopping day, parking can be a challenge, even though the mall offers 12,550 parking spaces adjacent to the building (several hundred more spots are available across Lindau Lane). Since the average vehicle brings three people to the mall, filling up every parking space would mean that more than 38,000 people are on site. That doesn't happen often, but the parking lots are typically full in midafternoon every Saturday in December.
The concern about parking is clearly an effort to reduce the cost for consumers to shop at a particular location, said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "While most people think of cost in monetary terms, there's also a cost in the amount of time you spend looking for something," he said. "If your total available mall shopping time is two hours, and your driving and parking time is 30 minutes, it reduces the amount of time you have to spend at the mall by 30 minutes."
Other regional shopping malls in the Twin Cities said they don't feel the need to take the initiative on parking the way the Bloomington mall has.
"Our mall traffic is up ... but we remain a convenient place to shop that is easily accessible and where it's easy to find a place to park," said Liz Ostrander, senior marketing manager at Rosedale Center in Roseville. Rosedale's parking lots are typically only full on a few major shopping days such as Black Friday, Ostrander said.
Still, for the major malls with major traffic, providing parking information via the Internet makes sense, Rao said. After all, if consumers sour on mall shopping because of the parking hassles, they may decide to use the Internet to shop, not just find a place to park.