Natural Foods Merchandiser

Happy shoppers sing, 'Baby, you can park my car'

In a perfect world, all your customers would walk, bike or, ideally, levitate to your store. But in our imperfect world, driving is frequently the chosen mode of transportation. And where cars go, parking lots follow.

Poll 10 natural foods store owners, and at least half will say they don't have enough parking for their customers. That's the case for Emil Mahler, co-owner of Southtown Health Foods in Chicago. Southtown has a 13-car parking lot for its 4,500-square-foot store, well under the five spaces per 1,000 square feet recommended by parking lot designers and required by some city zoning ordinances.

"Three-quarters of the day, the parking lot is always filled," says Mahler. His employees bike or walk to work, or are forced to park on the residential side streets near his store. Because Southtown is surrounded by retail and residential development, Mahler can't add any more parking spaces. "There's no solution unless a [nearby] building goes up for sale. Then I could buy it and tear it down to make a parking lot."

In general, Mahler says, his customers "grin and bear" the lack of parking spaces. "But on occasion they do complain, and I turn around and ask them, 'Do you want me to move out to the suburbs where there's more parking?'"

That's what Joe Wallen did. Each of his three For Goodness Sake stores around Naples, Fla., is located in an outdoor mall and shares a parking lot with 20 or so other stores. It doubles the rent to provide that much parking, Wallen says, plus he pays another $9 per square foot for a common area maintenance fee, which includes landscaping and upkeep of the parking lot.

Southtown and For Goodness Sake are two extremes of the parking dilemma. For those in the middle, there are some creative parking solutions.

  • Parking as a perk. Harvest Co-op Markets' Cambridge, Mass., 10,000-square-foot location has a 38-spot parking lot that's reserved for members only. "It's a real draw for membership?it seems to differentiate us," says General Manager Mike St. Clair. Members get special stickers for their cars that allow them to park in the lot, and Harvest employees patrol the lot two to three times a day during the store's busiest hours. About once a month, Harvest has to tow an unauthorized car, St. Clair says.

  • Destination shopping. Harvest's Jamaica Plain store has no parking at all. Consequently, it's set up as a neighborhood store that people visit four to five times a week, St. Clair says. "People bring their own carts, and we have very strong-handled bags. [The bags are] very expensive, but it's a service we provide."

  • Go posh. "Believe it or not, valet parking can really help with parking problems," says Andy Hill with Walker Parking Consultants in Boston. A self-park lot requires room for drivers to get in and out and maneuver their cars into parking spaces, but valet parkers can stack cars bumper to fender and wedge vehicles into spaces their owners would never attempt. Hill estimates valet parking can add an additional 5 percent to 15 percent capacity to a parking lot.

  • Taxi, anyone? The Shaw's Supermarket in Boston's Prudential Center has no parking, Hill says, but does have a taxi stand directly in front of the entrance. Check with your city about how you can get your own doorstop cab service.

  • Maximize space. Parking lots with slanted spaces or awkward lanes can rob you of room. Dilip Nandwana, executive vice president of International Parking Design in Oakland, Calif., says if your lot is smaller than 50 spaces, it's probably not worth hiring a parking consultant to reconfigure it. "But at 50 or more, we could make significant changes," says Nandwana, who recently revamped a 110-car parking lot, adding 60 extra spaces without requiring any more land. Design expertise like that doesn't come cheap—Nandwana estimates it costs about $2,000 per stall to redo a parking lot.

  • Guard your space. If customers ask if they can park in Southtown's lot while doing other local shopping, Mahler turns them down. But not everyone asks. Grocery store parking lots can lure scofflaws because they're frequently not monitored, Hill says. "Just putting up a token or validation gate is very often a psychological deterrent." These types of gates can cost between $5,000 and $20,000, he says.

  • Take on city hall. Find out if your city or chamber of commerce has any parking-related projects. Mahler says Chicago has a subsidy to help businesses band together to buy land and build parking lots. Nandwana points out that two Northern California cities, Santa Rosa and Palo Alto, are both developing downtown community business parking lots.

  • Share with others. Hill says if there's an office building or other business with a 9-to-5 workforce nearby, consider a shared-use agreement, where you either rent the office building's spaces on evenings or weekends or trade spaces. Churches are another possibility: They get some of your spaces on Sundays, especially if you're closed, and you get some of theirs during the week.

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor in Lafayette, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 80, 86

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