The mass adoption of curbside pickup during the pandemic has changed the role of the parking lot as retailers work to accommodate very different types of trips within the same space. Lots must now be designed, or repurposed, as spaces that can efficiently accommodate both pedestrians walking to the store and customers waiting for a pickup. But there are even more possibilities for optimization when retailers begin thinking about other potential uses for this real estate.
“It really gets into sort of a layering or hierarchy of shopping experiences,” said Michael Lee, VP at Callison RTKL in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “People still want to come to the store or the shopping center and be able to park close and go in, but at the same time an increasing amount of folks are more convenience driven — they really want to just get there, pick up something on the way to something else and then be on their way. It really starts to lend itself to thinking about where you locate parking in relationship to potential conflicts between” these two groups.
Retailers may want to reserve the most convenient spaces for brick-and-mortar shoppers, since these are the shoppers that actually need to leave their vehicles and potentially cross a busy lot. Therefore, the less time they have to spend walking on foot, the better. Lee identified Walmart and Target parking lots as good examples of layouts that properly designate shopping and pickup areas.
“I think you still want to give preference, in terms of location, to people that are actually going into the store or going into the facility, so putting those stalls closer to the actual stores makes the most sense,” said Lee. “Obviously, you don’t want to place pickup so far out that it takes a long time for someone to come out with the package, but you can have the actual pickup location slightly off to the side yet still within reach.”
Ease Of Navigation Can Make Or Break The Experience
A shopper’s first impression of each trip is determined by how easy it was for them to navigate the parking lot. Neither in-store shoppers nor BOPIS customers should have to wait in traffic during busy times, get lost in a poorly laid-out maze or risk dinging their bumper at a tight turn. It’s up to retailers to design parking lots that combine natural flow with adequate signage to guide customers.
“From a functional point of view, parking lot design is just about creating adequate turn radiuses, adequate stacking, making sure that it can handle the capacity or frequency of trips as people line up,” said Lee. “Depending on the size and scale you may need to have some person monitoring or helping direct traffic. It can be an employee at the store or an employee at the parking facility. As you get more sophisticated, you go through signage to automated signage to smartphone apps, which hopefully in the future will be built into your phone so you can check and see which spot you need to go to.”
As app technology matures, they could prove to be particularly cost-efficient navigation tools. Installing and maintaining signs and utilizing associates as “traffic cops” both incur costs for the retailer. In contrast, offloading that burden to a shopper’s own phone can generate significant infrastructure savings while also making it more convenient for the end user.
Parking Lots Have Potential — Put That Space To Use
Retailers and shopping centers also should think beyond their busiest times when considering how they utilize their parking areas, both in terms of visuals and experience. They shouldn’t be limited to empty seas of asphalt with no purpose beyond holding cars. Making these spaces visually pleasant can put incoming shoppers into the right mindset, and hosting events can give potential customers a reason to visit the store when they don’t have a purchase in mind.
“One of the things that we may want to start thinking about is providing additional infrastructure in the parking lot beyond just the stalls and the lights,” said Lee. “Maybe some landscaping, maybe WiFi connections or power outlets. You may want to, at some point, close off a small portion of that parking lot if it isn’t full all the time. Maybe host a fun farmers market on a particular day of the week.”
Adapting or designing parking lots for a wider range of use cases is far from a solved challenge, and now is as good a time as ever to get creative about putting them to work. Looking at the options available and coming up with creative ways to make the most of these versatile spaces can help retailers differentiate themselves and thrive during these uncertain times.
“This time of necessity breeds invention, and I think we’re seeing it both from a landlord shopping center ownership standpoint as well as from a tenant standpoint,” said Lee. “From a tenant standpoint, obviously being outdoors is much more palatable to customers than being indoors nowadays. What we’re seeing is working with landlords and starting to utilize the parking spaces that are part of those stores, blocking those off for either a restaurant that’s adding outdoor seating, or a store bringing merchandise to the actual parking area and providing some outside space for shoppers.”