c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

Phoebe Scott of Orange County, Calif., has a new routine before heading to the mall.

She checks the parking lots on her ParkMe smartphone app “so that I can see what I’m up against or if I need to change my plans.”

If a lot is less than 90 percent full, the trip is on. Her favorite is a garage at Santa Monica Place mall, where sensors and lights guide her to a specific open space.

“It’s a daily battle,” said Scott, 29, the founder of Laudville, a social technology startup. “Anything to make it easier makes a really big difference.”

The fight for a parking spot at the mall, long a necessary evil of Black Friday, is becoming easier thanks to the proliferation of new technologies, from apps and sensors to color-coded lights and electronic boards.

It’s one way that malls and shopping districts are trying to lure customers away from their computers, into the realm of their brick-and-mortar stores.

When no parking spots are available, “people drive around and become frustrated,” said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “Who wants to start their shopping experience frustrated?”

ParkMe, which tracks more than 28,000 locations worldwide, has emerged as a mainstay app for mall customers navigating the nation’s parking lots. With the app, they can find the closest and least expensive lots, as well as alternative entrances to the garage. The app’s user base surged 97 percent in the past year as it added hundreds of garages to its database.

“If there’s a way to get in off the beaten path, you can reduce stress,” said Sam Friedman, ParkMe’s co-founder and chief executive.

The app’s technology is simple enough: A magnetic loop at the garage clocks the number of times the gate lifts to admit or release a car, Friedman said. ParkMe also lets a customer reserve a spot in certain locations. Scott said she used that service during busy summer months.

Other parking apps are gaining traction as well. Parkopedia, which is linked to 26,000 lots in North America, also allows users to search parking sites, availability and prices using their smartphones. QuickPay plans to start in hundreds of U.S. malls next year to help shoppers pay for garage and metered spots and valet services from their smartphone.

“Parking is the gateway to the shopping experience,” said QuickPay’s founder, Barney Pell. “It can mean the success or failure of your whole business.”

Customers expect more than they did 10 years ago, said Casey Jones, a vice president for institutional services at Standard Parking, a Chicago-based provider of parking facility management services, and a past chairman of the International Parking Institute.

“They want real-time information, they want price choices, and they want to be directed to an open space,” Jones said.

Jessi Molohon, a 23-year-old student at the University of Texas, Austin, is one such customer. She said she used the Parking Whiz app when traveling to stores in downtown Houston or at the Houston Galleria to help find garages and compare prices.

“Parking can be anywhere from $6 to $12 on the same street, so I want to make sure I’m not overspending on parking when I’m going to overspend on shopping,” Molohon said.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

An app called A Parking Spot lets Molohon pin her favorite parking spaces on a Google map so she can navigate there next time.

“I have it down to a routine,” she said. “There are some spots I know of that are just easy to get in and out of that will help me save time and avoid the holiday traffic just a little.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

There is no data available on the number of mall garages outfitted with sensors to help keep track of vacant spots, but analysts say the rate of adoption is doubling or tripling year over year.

Taubman Centers, which owns and manages 22 U.S. malls, installed sensors in the garages in two of its centers to show shoppers on which floors they could find open parking spots. Installation costs $50,000 to $100,000 per location.

But parking is only half the battle. When a customer is ready to leave, there is the matter of finding the car.

Simon Property Group, the country’s largest mall owner and operator with more than 300 properties, said that use of its app, which includes a feature that helps shoppers locate their parked car, had increased eightfold in the past two years.

Users can take a picture of where their car is parked, drop a pin on a map or send a text message reminding themselves where they parked.

“It’s a proactive tool to prevent a customer from losing her car,” said Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Property Group.

It’s not just malls but also downtowns and local shopping districts that are striving to make parking easier. San Francisco, for example, with its notoriously difficult on-street parking, created its own app that steers drivers to open spots.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

And the city of Grosse Pointe, Mich., contracted with Parkmobile to introduce a parking service in the Village, the city’s shopping area, this month.

Users can pay for their metered spots and add time remotely using their smartphones. The app sends an alert 15 minutes before the meter is set to expire and also links to a map to show where the car is parked.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Automakers are also getting involved, adding features to their dashboard technology to help drivers navigate to a parking lot.

Audi has contracted with ParkMe to provide the app’s services in its dashboards, while Parkopedia announced last week that it would partner with Volvo.

Hyundai introduced its Blue Link app last year that allows users to locate their vehicle within a 1-mile radius.

“When you think about how fast this has moved in the last year, that it’s become so ubiquitous in such a short period of time, I would say that we’re reaching the tipping point,” said William D. Eggers, the public sector research director at Deloitte in Washington.

Garages “used to be about parking cars,” said Jones of Standard Parking. “Now we’re a service industry.”