Looking for a real supermarket bargain?
If you buy just $75 worth of groceries at the Ralphs in Dana Point, you can get free valet parking complete with tuxedoed attendants.
Starting today, Ralphs and nine other retailers in Dana Point's Lantern Bay Village center are launching a 60-day test program to see if the service will help ease a severe parking lot squeeze.
Even with 350 spaces, parking at the 30,000-square-foot center can turn into a snarl, especially during peak evening hours. Much of the crunch results from the fact that 120 of those slots are located behind the supermarket, forcing shoppers to trek down a hall and a flight of stairs to reach Ralphs.
The result is that many customers find parking wherever they can--including parking lot aisles, for example--or look for another place to shop.
"In my opinion, parking is the No. 1 problem here at the center," said Randy Kruska, Ralphs' store director. "When I look out my window into the parking lot and see a gridlock of irritated customers trying to scramble for spots, that really hurts."
The solution, Kruska decided, was to take a tip from a restaurateur friend. If valet parking works for upscale restaurants, he figured, why not for an upscale shopping center?
The primo service is offered only during peak hours--from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
And customers still have the option of scrounging for a free spot. "The choice is always yours," Kruska said. "It's really an alternative--let's say, if you're desperate. You have to cash a check or get to a party--if you want to feel comfortable, you might use it."
Realistically, Kruska expects 90% of those who shop at the center will live without the luxury. After all, "it's really for the select few," he said.
Even so, nine of the 10 other merchants at the center, located at the corner of Del Prado Avenue and Street of the Golden Lantern, will let their customers decide. The lone holdout is a dentist who apparently has no parking problem. The others, however, are offering the service along with Ralphs.
"It gets so crowded. People drive around and around in a circle then leave," said Clement Ahia, owner of Reflections Hair Design, where a tab of only $50 will get you free valet parking.
"They say we might even make some money," added Tom Lynch, owner of Dana Point Optical, where customers who spend $75 are entitled to the free service.
But Kruska is quick to add that Ralphs and the center aren't going into the valet parking business for profit. "It's motivated to provide additional customer service," he said. "It's not a revenue generator but strictly a parking solution"--although, ideally, the program will pay for itself.
Kruska acknowledged that customers who don't spend the required amount could wind up paying more for the parking service--$1.50--than, say, a carton of milk. But "it's a hassle-free experience and shows the customer that we care," he said.
If there are enough takers, the same service may be offered at some Ralphs stores in Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs and elsewhere in the desert, Kruska said.
Tips are optional.