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Sep, 01 2005

FOOD COURTS: THE FOOTFALLS GENERATOR

Food Courts drive and direct footfalls. Revamped towards entertainment and renovated for ease and comfort, food courts are experiencing resurgence

TODAY, food has become increasingly important as a retailing format in malls. Shoppers relish the sight of an assortment of food products and the sound of customers chatting in the food courts just as much as they enjoy browsing through bookstores and sifting through dresses on display rack or pullovers on a shelf.

Revamped towards entertainment and renovated for ease and comfort, food courts are experiencing resurgence. Whether it's providing rest for weary feet, satisfying a sweet tooth or ensuring that shoppers maximise their spending, food courts are becoming more than just eating houses.

These novel places provide a welcome relief to the serious shoppers to take a break and enjoy a quick fill up, act as a hangout joint for youngsters, a party place for young kids, a convenient getaway for corporate executives wanting to enjoy a jiffy lunch or a coffee break with their colleagues, not to mention the escape for the non serious shoppers, wanting to just laze around. If there are specialised outlets in the food court serving authentic cuisines, it ends up being a big driver of footfalls in the mall as well.

Mr Ramneek Bhatia, who is durrently heading Cairo, the food court in Gold Souk, Gurgaon, and is CEO, Jumbo Marketing, a consulting company which helps in setting up restaurants, cafes and pubs says,"The food court is an important element for any mall as it complements the business of the other tenants in the mall and is more of a necessity for any mall to succeed. It fills a big need for different kinds of people walking into a mall as it provides affordable good quality food in a comfortable air-conditioned environment."

Mr Anoop Sequeria, CEO, Pizza Corner, characterises food courts as offering lot of choice at an affordable price. "It is a destination point by itself where consumers would want to choose from variety, keeping quality in mind. Food courts play a major role for brands. With limited investment, the brands increase their visibility. Food courts also attract footfalls that are critical for the success of food business," he stresses.

Mr Sanjay Dutt, director, Transaction Services,

Cushman & Wakefield India says, "Food courts play the role of anchor tenant in a mall. Along with complimenting businesses such as books, games, fine dining restaurants and movies, they provides good recreational space to the customers."

Ansals marketing team opines, "Food courts support the functioning of a mall and have become an important part of malls."

"Food courts symbolise branded convenience offering quick service, gamut of cuisines tailored to suit pallets and preferences of different customers and affordability. Food courts help create brand awareness and sometimes customers acknowledge the existence of a brand or product as a result of their presence. Food courts are like a multi-brand outlet offering best from respective categories. It provides a platform for the brands to compliment rather than compete with each other as each offers a unique product," echoes McDonald's.

Cashing in on the profitable market, even retail giant Pantaloon Retail India has entered the food court business with a chai and samosa outlet. Christened Chamosa, this new format is being tried out at some of its existing malls in Mumbai.

Concept of food courts

A food court is a type of indoor plaza contiguous with the counters of multiple food vendours and providing a common area for self-serve dining. In the US, food courts became popular in the 1980s in shopping malls and airports. Food courts usually consist of several small counters of fast food outlets, sometimes with more upscale restaurants located nearby. Says Mr Anil Rajpal of KSA consultancy firm, "Food courts arrived much earlier in India than in the US, where initially there were no food courts. According to one case study malls in US rediscovered themselves through food courts."

Tracing the history and development of shopping malls, Mr Arif Hussaini, a retired civil servant living in California who served as Principal Information Officer and Director of Colombo Plan and the author of Profiles of National Development in South East Asia, says, "At the end of World War II, the country had less than a dozen of shopping complexes. Today, there are some 2,000 of such shopping centres spread all over America with new ones coming up all the time."

As shopping malls evolved, so did food courts. The latest designs are geared towards entertainment, relaxation and leisurely dining. As a result, people of all age now go to malls specifically for what food courts offer. Although mall architects harbour different opinions about what creates the strongest draw, most recognise the need to incorporate more than just fast food and restrooms.

Elaborates Mr Mani M Nagasubramnian, managing director, Retail Design and Merchandising Private Limited (RD&M), a multi-disciplined full service retail design company that specialises in creating retail brands and branded environments, "Food court is a common dining environment designed with a theme or idea, giving the guests an enormous variety of cuisines to choose from. Assortment appeal is the perceived value. Guests, consumers or shoppers enjoy being empowered to choose or rather reject several options in the given choice-set. The whole ambience ought to be inviting, enthusing, cajoling, entertaining, exciting and enjoyable."

The making of a successful food court

What makes any food court a success? Is it the food that is being served, or the way it is being served, or the interiors that glorify the experience? In fact it's much more...

Some factors do add to the popularity of food courts such as wide variety of choices; serving fast-food fast; presenting the products and services in an entertaining way; to be competitive; to be unique; to have as many USPs as possible; to strive for The Critical Mass Effect; to integrate international branded concepts with Asian branded concepts; with Indian branded concepts and local unbranded concepts; to integrate the F&B units with the entertainment units with high visibility; and easy access and exit. The food courts inside the mall provide the much needed boost to the retailing segment.

Mr Ramneek believes, "A variety of cuisines always ensure continuous walk- ins to the food court. It is important that all the outlets serving different cuisines should consistently serve the best quality of food as even one or two outlets serving bad food could have a big negative rub off on the others."

McDonald's team observes, "When a customer is looking for a variety of cuisines and quick service, he will undoubtedly visit a food court. Therefore, variety, quick service, affordability and alluring ambience are the key factors for customers to patronise a food court."

According to a consumers survey done recently, out of the total spend of any family shopping basket, the total spending on eating out has gone up significantly. "This in itself indicates a major shift in eating out habits and that makes food courts all the more relevant in driving the customer out of his home in to a mall to eat," asserts Mr Sachdeva.

Entertainment is also an important ingredient for a successful food court. Regular food festivals, cultural evenings, special events, festive dinners make the food courts worth a visit.

Echoes the team at Ansals, "Even developers are now realising that food court of any mall generates footfall, and hence take due consideration while designing the mall. The design of the food court has to gel with the design of the mall. A theme food court is what is preferred by mall developers now-a-days."

"The developers are opting for various models to operate food courts such as appointing food court operators, self-operated but leased to individual operators who are looking at the opportunity to provide specialised services in this area," says Mr Dutt while informing about the latest trend.

Moving up the floor

The concept of moving food courts to the highest floor in malls began in the late 1980s. Today, most of the food courts are located either on top floors or basement. This helps malls to offer different segments to pamper the specific needs of the customers. Imagine a situation where food courts are located right in the middle of the mall with food lovers messing up with those who are all set for some serious shopping. Says Mr Anil Rajpal, "Mostly food courts are on top floors or in the basement as eating is not an instant decision. Customers plan for food and hence would love to spend quality time relaxing and enjoying in food courts. Even retailers do not prefer to mix food with buying in India."

Food Courts vis-à-vis standalone outlets

The comparisons are bound to happen. And why not? Everyone wants a profitable proposition for their business and before taking the plunge into the food business any investor would go in for some serious calculations. Industry analysts say that investment in the restaurant business has gone up by around 300 per cent over the past three years in Gurgaon.

But the sector remains the domain of entrepreneurs with deep pockets. Stand-alone restaurants are not that expensive to run, it is the chain that requires lots of money and a sharp strategy, feels some. Investments on corporate management, logistics and brand promotion is quite high for a chain. Besides, you have to standardise the processes, which only a person with deep pockets can do.

A high percentage of the people entering a mall would go to the food court after visiting or window shopping through the other outlets. As per Mr Bhatia, "The food court addresses the need for all and sundry entering the mall, while one shopping outlet has a scope for a limited audience only."

Mr Anoop follows a balanced approach. "For a market presence to be balanced, a food brand has to be present both in a mall and as a standalone outlet. Ultimately it depends on the location be it a mall or

Standalone location", he says suggestively.

McDonald's, on the other hand, feels, "There are not many differences in the operational challenges present at food courts or standalone units. The service time and other operational issues remain the same. The only exception observed in case of food courts is their limited menu clause, due to space constraints. The popular McExpress formats were introduced to fit into the food court concept."

"Variety is the spice of life and the best variety in food can only be had in a food court and not in a stand-alone restaurant," says Mr Dutt.

Challenges besieging the food courts

Food courts provide the consumer with variety of food, but this does not mean the variety of companies that provide it is directly proportional. Due to the fact that food courts are located in central areas, the high density of custom and money means the value and demand of the food court is great.

Hence, there will usually be a premium cost for renting a business unit in a food court, which restricts the outlets to companies with the most financial and marketing power. This is why one will find more Burger Kings, KFCs, McDonald's, and Pizza Huts inside a food court more often than smaller chains of fast service food outlets. There are no standardised procedures laid for food courts, yet there are many areas which need serious concern.

Seating is an important factor in the overall success of food courts. Malls should plan for the heavy season and ensure constant flow of traffic going around the food court area. Most often, malls opt for food court in the centre of the mall, but don't want to get buried in it.

Says Mr Sachdeva, "Seating space provision is the most missing factor. Food courts are currently designed in all malls in such a way that the maximum area is devoted to filling up more and more tables and chairs to seat more people, This makes food courts really noisy."

Therefore, while designing a food court cubicles or some sort of partitions for exclusive seating areas can be provided to grant privacy to a family.

Uniting conflicting brand images is another issue. Numerous tenant banners may create a draw, but tenants suffer from the critical competition that so results. Food courts today have fewer tenants, but each has better exposure.

The biggest challenge in food courts, today, is not seating arrangements, vendour combinations, or new dining themes, but rather the philosophy that food courts are an essential ingredient to a mall's longevity and a tenant's maximum profitability.

What ails the Indian food courts?

McDonald's team feel that the food court concept is still at a nascent stage in India as compared to other developed markets.

Says Mr Mani, "The importance of theme, idea or story is missing. Most of them are a take off on food courts elsewhere in the Far East, Middle East or the US. The theme ought to be of relevance and complimentary to the social factors and customers' psyche. The variety of menu alone cannot be the reason for diners and shoppers coming back.

Mr Ramneek argues that huge empty halls have been converted into food courts without giving any thought to the height of the ceiling, movement space required in the food court making the customer feel over cramped. Non flexible areas for each outlet does not give the right cuisine mix to the food court.

Mr Anoop feels that the key factors that are indispensable for the food courts are adequate seating, good A/C, free flow of movement, accessibility to counter in the customer area, and right mix of food brands. The service area will have to be well-planned for free flow of materials; and utilities should be available with ease.

For the long-term success of the food court, the developer should ensure that the right cuisine mix is available rather than just filling up the food counters available at the earliest. An in-house food critique or consultant for the mall could go a long way in ensuring that the food court occupants are delivering as per the standards laid out.

Stressing the need for quality provision Mr Dutt says,"Unlike dry merchandise areas food courts need special provision for garbage disposal, circulation, goods movement, service corridors, fire safety, air circulation, sitting arrangements, distance of delivery counters from the seating areas, food delivery system, customer announcement etc.

Revamping the food courts

The next step is to plan for the times ahead. With such a frenzied pace of retail development, we need to look at solutions and strategies to make food courts a cut above the rest. The 'entertainment' aspe

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