The Mall of America is trying to alleviate holiday shoppers' top frustration: finding a place to park.
The Bloomington mall officially unveiled its new parking guidance system this week in advance of the holiday shopping rush. The Park Assist system features digital signs noting the number of open spaces and colored lights to guide drivers to available parking spots.
Shopper Jessica Moe, of Woodbury, saw it last week when the nation's largest indoor shopping and entertainment complex was testing the system.
"That was super cool and pretty helpful," said Moe, who took her three children to the mall and used the system to find a parking spot quickly. "This will definitely be helpful on a crowded day, otherwise you are taking your chances going down aisles."
The system also allows guests to check parking availability from their home computer and their mobile devices before heading out, similar to how travelers can check on how full lots are at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Large digital signs at the entrance to the east and west ramps display the number of open spots on each level. Drivers can pick the level with the most open spots and go directly there, said mall spokesman Dan Jasper.
Within the ramps, more than 5,000 cameras trained on parking spots will relay information to LED lights on the ceiling. The light will glow green if one of the nearby spots is available or red if they are all full. Blue lights will show where accessible parking is available.
If the spots are full, digital directional signs will point drivers to the next available spot.
"The most common complaint we get during the holiday season is parking," Jasper said. "We want to alleviate that frustration."
Park Assist's camera-based system covers all 12,500 spaces in the mall's two ramps. The New York-based company will install another system to cover the 2,500 spaces in surface lots.
Last Tuesday, Sam Theth, of Faribault, Minn., took his son to the Mall of America for his sixth birthday and said the system made parking "very easy."
But Marinda Anne LaBrosse, who used to work as a security guard at the mall, said it was not that helpful when she visited the mall Sunday.
"I drove around for 20 minutes and almost got hit multiple times. Everybody was staring at the ceiling instead of paying attention to pedestrians," she said. There was no open parking spot under a green light, she said, but she found one with a red light. "I'm sure this will be great once they get the hiccups worked out."
Park Assist said it has installed its system in ramps worldwide from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to malls in the Philippines. Last week, the city of Rochester, Minn., awarded Park Assist a contract to install its parking guidance system in the new 3rd Street Ramp being built next to the Hilton Hotel.
The Bloomington Port Authority covered the $3.4 million cost of installing Park Assist by using Mall of America tax increment financing. The city did not pay for any of the project, said Schane Rudlang, port authority administrator.
Jasper said the system is the latest effort to make things easier for the mall's 40 million annual visitors. Last November, the mall rolled out app-based parking system that allowed visitors to reserve parking spots by the main entrances in both the east and west parking garages.
The mall also offers a valet service that allows customers to drop off their car, then send a text message to staff who will bring it to them when they are ready to leave.
"This is one more element to bundle services," Jasper said. "We are really trying to enhance the parking experience."