A Parking Lot Story

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\"AJoni Mitchell wrote the line “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.” How much of our lives are defined by parking. Call it a tangible ramification of the invention of the wheel or perhaps an odd cultural addiction to smooth hard surfaces.  For global retail it is the apron, in whatever form it takes. Visit a new urban shopping mall in Tokyo: the model is a conceptual Ferris wheel, an elevated spinning parking lot where each car has its own compartment. Drive your car into the cube, it gets lifted and stored away in the sky.  In Seoul, many shopping malls have cameras focused on each space and a software package that reads license plate numbers; through an interactive screen in an elevator bank or a phone app, you are guided you through a dimly-lit maze to your vehicle. For all the innovation across the world, parking is still mostly flat asphalt and concrete, accessorized with a little paint.

Parking lots are the historic starting and ending point for retail. They are often barren and windswept, especially on a winter weekday inside a garage at Mall of America. They are sometimes scary; who ever loved a parking lot? No one ambles; everyone rushes to unlock their cars. More accidents happen in parking lots than on the highway. They are laid out by engineering teams trying to fit in as many spaces as they can. Outside of Seoul and Tokyo, parking lots have not conceptually changed since the invention of automobiles. Until now.

General Shopping is a Brazilian mall developer/operator and, full disclosure, I serve on its advisory board. It currently has some 23 locations across its portfolio. Some urban locations in Rio and Sao Paulo, an old Olivetti Typewriter Factory repositioned as a mall near Guarulhos Airport, and a series of outlets called Outlet Premium. It is a family-owned business. The CEO, CMO, COO and CFO were high school classmates now in their late 30s and early 40s. They can complete each others’ sentences. In the rough and tumble world of emerging market shopping, they have managed to tiptoe through the landmines of politics, expensive financing and larger competitors.

The first Outlet Mall location opened some 40 miles outside of Sao Paulo. It is set into the side of a hill, with industrial buildings, an open-air food court and exterior parking. The plan was to replace parking areas as needed with new buildings. Almost 10 years old, it has been a major hit in the mall marketplace. A water park and hotel were quickly developed on an adjacent piece of property, and a destination was created.

The second and third Outlet Premiums have been built outside Brasilia and Salvador. In a troubled Brazilian economic climate, both malls are flourishing. About 20 months ago, we conducted our first comprehensive review of the two new properties. What was working, what wasn’t, what General Shopping could be doing better and where the opportunities were. Not surprisingly, parking lots were our starting point.

One of the things we noticed about the region was the high number of motorcycle cruisers; Yamahas, Harleys, Hondas — all the big ones. Brazil is known for its crazy Cycle Boys, the young men that make their living making deliveries and die daily zipping in and out of heavy traffic. These Boys drive medium-sized bikes that lend themselves to high-risk, high adrenaline zipping. What we saw in our parking lots were not these smaller bikes, but hogs. Based on our informal survey, wealthy middle-aged Brazilian males like big cruisers, not unlike their American counterparts. Driving to the Outlet Premium malls on a big motorcycle has become very popular. Park the wife or girlfriend on the back of the bike and roar off on a forty-mile excursion out of town to the mall. It’s a perfect weekend activity, and a happy trade-off, for everyone.

What we also noticed were all the gawkers. High-end bikes just attract attention. Our thought was, why not move motorcycle parking into the body of the Outlet? In this case, it was in the Brasilia location, sited right next to a popular restaurant.

One the nice things about working for family companies is that a good idea doesn\’t have to go to a committee. It took a month to make the improvements: new concrete floors, lighting, and training for the parking lot guards on how to direct traffic and manage the men.

The results were awesome. The number of bikes on display increased with each passing weekend. The interior lot was filled with people, often families just fawning over the bikes. The adjacent restaurant reported a serious increase in sales. Visiting the informal bike display became one of the leading reasons families, especially with young boys, liked coming to the mall. And a year later, we started getting calls from motorcycle dealers asking if we could build them showrooms on site. They are a mall tenant we never imaged having, and couldn’t be happier to have. One of the brands even asked if they could have their own lot.

General Shopping is rethinking parking altogether. New malls will have power and water built in to parts of their lots. We are thinking food trucks, crafts fairs, car shows; we now look at our asphalt not as a cost, but an opportunity for place making. Wouldn’t you like to see a lot of cool bikes all in one place? Or even better, go to a weekend Maker Faire? The transformation of parking lots has also re-energized the parking lot managers, because they, too, realize that if their lots go from a cost to a profit center, they might make more. A LOT more. No pun intended!



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