OPINION

Parking charges disincentive to city mall shoppers

It is now a foregone conclusion, all shopping malls and arcades have installed machines to charge shoppers for parking. The idea is that so much real estate is consumed by parking space that it needs to bring some return.

One might ask how sound this business model is. Parking in shopping malls is a facilitator of the mall’s business. In other words, the shopping mall will attract very little of their target customers—the middle class—if there was no dedicated parking.

Parking charges penalise shoppers for their patronage. It really is an upsiide down business model. The basis of a mall is to facilitate, indeed encourage, “browsing” by shoppers. The more they browse, the more likely they will pick something here, something there.

But mall parking charges are punitive because of their progressive nature. The more the shopper stays in the mall spending their money, the higher the parking charges. So shoppers must shop with an eye on the clock, undermining  the very concept of a mall.

However, the mall landlord is able to do this because the people whose business is hurt is the merchants who have leased space. The landlord not only gets his rent from the merchants at the end of the month, but  also extracts his pound of flesh from his tenants’ clients.

Many malls need to ask themselves whether the perennial yawning parking spaces represent lost business for their tenants, and the overall effect it ultimately has on demand for space in their premises. Businesses that are thriving attract other businesses to set up.

It does not end at paying the parking charges. Once a shopper has paid their ticket, they are then given a deadline to get out of the shopping mall. This deadline is usually 15 minutes. Again, why any mall would go out of their way to literally drive the customer from their premises is beyond anyone’s ken.

The shopper must literally flee the mall because they do not want the humiliation that follows when the 15 minutes elapse and they are yet to exit. When this happens and they arrive at the exit barrier, the token does not activate the barrier, and they are forced to suffer the indignity of having to reverse and go and pay again. This is very undignified.

Sometimes the poor shoppers are descended upon by a horde of security guards manning the barriers, and a whole scene ensues with other vehicles being forced to back up to give room for the “offending” motorist to get space to reverse and go pay again. A shopper who probably has just spent thousands in that mall is subjected to all this indignity because of 50 bob! And yet, a shopper who is on their way out should feel comfortable enough to continue their “browsing” or even stop and pick something up should it strike their fancy.

The bottomline is that the mall landlord is not invested in the shopper hanging around the mall as long as possible because his money is already secured. He will get paid rent by the merchant anyway- irrespective of the volume of shopper traffic.

It would be interesting to tabulate how much money shop owners in malls are losing in foregone sales over parking charges, whether from shoppers shunning malls, or cutting short their visits to minimise  parking charges or avoid embarrassment. My suspicion is that it would be a revelation, if not a shock. Irritants of this nature create a lot of resentment among customers.

Even some hospitals have decided to cash in on their customers (read patients), and customer’s clients (read visitors).  Patients admitted to hospitals must be visited every day. These supporters already overburdened by the astronomical bills that hospitals in Kenya subject their patients to. And then over and above those charges, the hospital must milk the last coin possible from the people visiting the sick through parking charges. Unconscionable.

Hotels have got the equation right. Those hotels that have invested in commercial parking simply ask their patrons to get their parking tickets validated when they finish patronising them, and so get free parking. Those who simply want the parking service are charged for it at a premium. Everybody is happy.

This is another of those peculiarly Kenyan business practices which, while not strictly illegal, are of dubious ethical standards.

Business practices

The same can be said of the so-called “goodwill” that landlords demand from businesses that want to rent commercial space in their premises. This upfront payment has no legal basis, and is over and above the rental payment and deposit that one pays to move into a premise. In this case, the landlord is simply reaching over his tenant’s shoulders to extract money from the customers who will patronise the merchant’s premises. This abuse has been sanitised over the years as “goodwill.”

Such business practices are prevalent in Kenya because customer rights in the country are almost non-existent, and consumer protection laws are very weak.  Customer rights in Kenya is one of the weakest links in the economy, and consumer rights groups need to pick up this ball to get the government to enact the necessary laws, and create appropriate institutions and mechanisms to stop exploitative practices that epitomise the worst of capitalistic tendencies.

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