Calm down, people!

Despite the challenges presented by a sluggish economy and the ongoing march of online, there seems to be little to diminish the popularity of out-of-town shopping malls – in the UK at any rate.

From Thurrock to Sheffield, from Manchester to Gateshead and beyond, millions of Brits continue to flock to these retail temples in search of… well, anything and everything.  Plates of sushi on conveyor belts, fast fashion, high fashion, posh coffee, smart phones, not forgetting some of those highly scented bath bombs that you once never knew you needed but now can’t do without.

Malls are clean, they’re bright, they’re largely – importantly in the UK – under cover, and they’re also a whole lot of fun.

Let’s remember too in most circumstances they offer something to British consumers that their local town and city centre isn’t able or willing to provide – free parking.

So – all good, right?  Well, maybe.  But here’s the thing.  During a trip into a local mall late last October, I got into conversation with one of the guys whose job it is to wear a blue t-shirt and advise you on how to part with your cash for the latest super-cool piece of Californian high-tech.  It was first thing on a Monday morning, and I mentioned that the mall seemed quiet.  He agreed, but then said “but it wasn’t like this over the weekend – really busy – run up to Christmas – they were actually fighting over car parking spaces, the police were here…”

I remembered that discussion a couple of days ago when I paid another visit to the same mall.  It being mid week and in the middle of the day, but in the middle of school holidays, the mall – and the car park – were, well, middling busy.

You might therefore think that all was well out there amongst the bays.  You wouldn’t necessarily be right.  Despite – or maybe because of – the fact that the average mall trip involves a commitment to put one foot in front of another for possibly some considerable time, the game appears to be to park absolutely as near to the entrance as possible – even with the sun beating down, and no rain in the forecast.

Chevroned zones?  Double yellow lines?  Kerbs and grassed areas?  None are sacrosanct in the desire of some folk to minimise the car-to-shops distance.  The recently renewed directional floor arrows were merely a waste of paint for many visitors in chunky 4x4s, trendy little coupes, and retro super minis in that hunt for proximity to where the retail action is.

Cue angry faces, near misses as cars bolted in the wrong direction to snaffle a spot, while, hanging in the air like a cloud, the sense of injustice that comes when the driver of a huge off-roader thinks that they can abandon their machine where they like just because it suits them.

And yet, a little way from this madness, just a few seconds’ stroll further, many, many crisp, empty and desirable car parking spaces stood undisturbed.  On this Wednesday lunchtime it really was – take your pick.

So what do we learn from all this?

While it would be wonderful to think that saying “calm down, people” would work, we all know that this is unlikely to happen.  So maybe, let’s start with communicating effectively on this issue.  The old line of ‘educate, inform and entertain’ kind of fits quite well here.  If we don’t start to point out the folly, the silliness and the selfishness of this “me-me-me nearest the entrance” behaviour, we will find it difficult, if not impossible to make things change.

So, posters, leaflets, car park ambassadors – with the detail of the message spiced up with a degree of wit and charm to make us smile – will help spread the word that shopping in a mall should be fun, not the excuse to start a feud.

It might also persuade customers that putting in an extra two minutes’ stroll from the car park can actually add to the overall retail-as-therapy experience.

With that kind of communications plan up and running, it could then be time for some malls to deal more effectively with the more extreme forms of guerrilla parking that can go on.

That way, the vast majority of customers who park fairly can see that the chevron grabber, the double yellow line hogger, the kerb surfer, the verge warrior and the turning circle squatter don’t get away with it.  And that could be one of the best Christmas presents this season’s mall visitors might get.