Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What is wrong with how malls and their outlets operate?

I think corporates, builders and retailers are waking up to the fact that malls are a sure success recipe - provided the initial budget can be worked out. With my personal experience, I can say malls "work".

It is a very hard combination to beat. Place to park your vehicles, buffet of retail stores, buffet of eateries and a multiplex for movies. Charging a premium for the experience - premium in terms of slightly inflated food and retail prices - is ok.

This is a slightly whiny post and not everything is about the cost. Even items about the cost have a certain thought process behind them. The customer is the most important person on the premise of a mall and her experience should be the first design priority. Profitizing (yeah, I made that up) should be a side effect.

First, many retailers seem to operate their stores like they are stand alone. For example, if there is a mobile outlet that is outside the mall, nine times out of ten, I know what I want when I go there. So I go, get my job done and exit. In a mall, more often than not, I want to hang out. That involves a lot of "looking around" without buying. So the outlets need to be arranged like that. Most of the outlets I visit are arranged like standalone. The moment I walk in, one of them comes to me and asks what I want. Which is precisely the opposite of how it needs to be. A mall outlet should be arranged for the person to just walk around. The outlet incharge should be "absent but ready to be present". This will ensure foot fall. Some outlets get this design. But even they are guilty of the "yes sir?" behaviour. If they fix this, they will ensure more walk ins. And just the odds will ensure a purchase. Today, because of the layout and "yes sir?" I don't step into 85% of the outlets. What a waste! (And I am talking about win-win here, not my pleasure alone).

Some outlets take this "yes sir?" to another level. One example is the Lifestyle home decor store. Granted, with my shabby hair and unkempt beard, I sometimes look like a thief. Also granted, some people might genuinely look lost and may want help. But I suspect that their training and staff behavior are acutely geared towards making the person uncomfortable. This might be because of the reason I described above [no purchase, rubber-neck]. What the staff does is just follow me around wherever I walk making me acutely self conscious. This happened at least thrice. Twice, I just wanted to look. Once, I wanted to buy [a lot]. When I am looking, I want to be immersed with what I am looking. If I want help, I can call. But this actively and acutely following tactic is annoying and puts me off totally. Its almost the store saying "get out of my place"! The third time it happened, I went to the staff and asked "Am I looking suspicious?". He probably didn't expect this and said "No sir!". "Then why are you following me around?". "In case you need help.". Bad idea. If you really want to help, keep them around but don't hound me. If thievery is a concern, you can work around your CCTV and monitoring process.

Third the food-courts. Every food court now issues a card which has to be pre-loaded and used in the outlets. And the card itself is 20 rupees. This is a big nuisance. Some outlets like Express Avenue in Chennai don't have a refund process for the food card (someone please sue them). And the amount expires in a year. All this amounts to robbing people blind. Certain "elite" outlets like McDonalds, KFC are exempted from this food card process. [Of course, they buy their way out of exemption so its a fair business deal]. I can understand why the food cards are present. The FC lessor has a sales cut by sales volume and this is the easiest way for him to track the sales. But the scape goat is the customer. I personally have 4 cards. And I lost three which probably had about INR 300 in cash. It is estimated that the ambient cash on all issued cards in a mall amounts to INR 35 lakh. This is interest free money the FC lessor holds. It works because of the volume. A customer with INR 50 on her card will probably say no biggie! I will use it next time. Again, this is nothing but thievery.

So what is the solution? I will suggest, issue food cards for INR 20. But don't load the card with money. Let the customer pay in the outlet with cash or credit/debit card. In addition, they can swipe the food court card. You can have a board saying "if the outlet doesn't swipe the FC card, your food is free". When the customer goes, he can return the card and get his 20 bucks back. Of course, the FCs aren't going to do this themselves. A law should be made for this.

Finally, parking! In-mall parking is a convenience. But what happens there is nothing short of looting. We recently parked a two wheeler for five hours at express avenue and got charged INR 130. To top this, there is a board saying "parking at owner's risk". So what am I paying for? It is for leasing the parking space for the duration. Cars are much more expensive to park. Again, a law needs to be made that balances the customer's pocket with the owner's investment. Today the odds are totally stacked against the customer. Another solution (and a great business idea) is to totally waive off the parking fee for someone who spends INR 500 or more. Work out a way to make this happen. So if I just was a rubber neck in the duration I can pay more for pleasure of just window shopping.

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