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 below 90 percent full, the trip is on. Her favorite, not far from her workplace, is a garage at the Santa Monica Place mall, where sensors and lights guide her to a specific open space.
“It’s a daily battle,” said Ms. Scott, 29, the founder of Laudville, a social technology start-up. “Anything to make it easier makes a really big difference.”
The fight for a mall parking spot, long a necessary evil of Black Friday, 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.
“What happens when there’s no spots? 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, and it is adding 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, Mr. Friedman said. ParkMe also lets a customer reserve a spot in certain locations, like the Shore Hotel down the road from Santa Monica Place. Ms. 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 malls in the United States 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,” QuickPay’s founder, Barney Pell, said. “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, the 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,” Mr. Jones said.
Jessi Molohon, a 23-year-old student at the University of Texas at Austin, is one such customer. She said she uses the ParkWhiz app when traveling to stores in downtown Houston or at the Houston Galleria to help find garages and compare prices.
“Parking can be anywhere from $6 to $12 on the same street, so I want to make sure I’m not overspending on parking when I’m going to overspend on shopping,” Ms. Molohon said.
An app called A Parking Spot lets Ms. Molohon pin her favorite parking spaces on a Google map so that she can navigate there next time.
“I have it down to a routine,” she said. “There are some spots I know of that are just easy to get in and out of that will help me save time and avoid the holiday traffic just a little.”
There is no data available on the number of mall garages outfitted with sensors to help keep track of vacant spots, but analysts say the rate of adoption for mall infrastructure and the number of parking apps is doubling or tripling year over year.
Taubman Centers, which owns and manages 22 malls in the United States, 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 last two years.
Christopher Berkey for The New York Times
Sam Friedman, co-founder and chief of ParkMe, said, “If there’s a way to get in off the beaten path, you can reduce stress.”
Birdie in Austin, Tex.
When do you begin your holiday shopping, and where do you look for the best deals? Tell us how you shop for the season. The Times will feature a selection of the responses this week.
Retailers Seek Partners in Social Networks (November 27, 2013)
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 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.
And the city of Grosse Pointe, Mich., contracted with Parkmobile to introduce a parking service in the Village, the city’s shopping area, this month.
Users can pay for their metered spots, and add time remotely, using their smartphones. The app sends an alert 15 minutes before the meter is set to expire and also links to a map to show where the car is parked.
“They’re more tied to their smartphones than coins in their pocket,” said Peter J. Dame, the Grosse Pointe city manager.
Automakers are also getting involved, adding features to their dashboard technology to help drivers navigate to a parking lot.
Audi has contracted with ParkMe to provide the app’s services in its dashboards, while Parkopedia announced last week that it would partner with Volvo to offer embedded parking information for its customers.
Hyundai introduced its Blue Link app last year, which allows users to locate their vehicle within a one-mile radius.
“When you think about how fast this has moved in the last year, that it’s become so ubiquitous in such a short period of time, I would say that we’re reaching the tipping point,” said William D. Eggers, the public sector research director at Deloitte in Washington.
Garages “used to be about parking cars,” said Mr. Jones of Standard Parking. “Now we’re a service industry.”