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As Chennai malls re-open, here is what the new shopping experience is like

Is shopping at the mall like going to the ball as Cinderella: in and out with a deadline in mind? Mall hop with us, following COVID-19 guidelines

Ask S Lalitha what she longs for and the KK Nagar resident says, “I have missed going to Spar Hypermarket in Forum Mall to get my monthly groceries…” Human desires have become astonishingly simple under the pandemic.

Until five months ago, the city’s shopping malls were prime hangout spaces, bustling with hordes of people — shopping, catching a late afternoon movie, attending an anime convention or simply enjoying open air concerts.

Now, malls have finally been allowed to re-open under Unlock 4.0 for the first time since they were closed for operations on March 25.

But, as excited as Lalitha is to shop at her favourite supermarket again, she is also cautious: “I want to make sure that they are following all the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the virus, before visiting.” She is not the only one. What will a trip to the mall look like today?

Entry at Express Avenue, Chennai

Rethinking spaces

At Forum Vijaya Mall in Vadapalani, visitors are required to book a time-slot prior to visiting, which can be done from its social media handle or from the website.

Velachery’s Phoenix MarketCity, meanwhile, has launched an application called ‘Nhance by Phoenix’. The app, which can be downloaded from Google Play store and App store, has features such as pre-booking entry, locating the stores inside (to reduce ambling), making quick and contactless payments, and even pre-ordering food from anywhere in the mall.

At the entrance, customers are made to undergo a series of security, hygiene and temperature checks. Customers are also urged to download the Aarogya Setu app on their mobile phones, before heading to the mall.

“There are wet and dry mats to disinfect feet at the mall’s entrance. A UV scanner is present to disinfect personal baggage and there are touch-free hand sanitising stations too inside,” says Pooja Patti, Centre Director of Phoenix MarketCity and Palladium. The number of people visiting, that is the mall density, is monitored via artificial intelligence sensors. Thermal cameras have also been placed at the entry. “They have a red signal with an alarm to indicate if the person’s temperature is higher than normal,” she adds.

The new shopping experience

Twenty-three-year-old Shreejay Munuswam, a Saligramam resident, visited Phoenix on the first day the malls reopened. “It was not crowded… I went to the H&M showroom in Palladium to buy clothes,” he says. But how safe is trying on clothes for that perfect fit?

That depends both on the mall’s SOP and the individual stores’ additional safety precautions. Mohammed Ali, Chief Operations Officer of Forum Vijaya Mall says, “Some apparel brands are not allowing trials of clothes. Other brands are using sanitisation baskets near trial rooms. Customers are asked to put the tried clothes into the baskets. Those clothes are disinfected and kept back on the rack after two days.”

Soumit Banerjee, Centre Head for Marina Mall in Egatoor, says that the mall’s maintenance costs, including disinfectant floors and elevators by staff in PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), have gone up by 20%. Interestingly, data from Marina Mall also reveals that home furnishing stores are doing particularly well after reopening, perhaps owing to the extended home-bound period and additional needs driven by working from home.

Meanwhile, in VR Chennai, Anna Nagar, stores are allowing only one customer per 75 square feet of space, and shoppers are provided with disposable gloves on request if they want to touch and feel the products.

All outlets at the food court at VR Chennai have already opened. At Express Avenue, operations to open the courts are currently underway as staffers gradually return from their homes across the country. Shreejay Munuswamy, who dined at Pappa Roti during his visit to Phoenix says, “Apart from Pappa Roti and Starbucks, none of the other restaurants were open. The food at Pappa Roti was very good, but the choices were limited.”

Washrooms with red and green markings at Forum Mall, Chennai

Washrooms with red and green markings at Forum Mall, Chennai

Attention has also been paid to the washrooms. Express Avenue has made only alternate urinals and wash basins available for use. RK Devanathan, 26, from Chrompet, who visited Forum Vijaya Mall on September 2, says, “A red-sign board was put up outside the washrooms, and we were made to use only those urinals and wash basins marked with red-stickers. There were also green-stickers marking alternate urinals, so maybe they will be used at different times depending on their sanitisation.”

Express Avenue’s Chief Revenue Officer Munish Khanna seems happy with the response they have gotten so far. “It does not look like the mall was shut for five months,” he says.

On August 30, the Government announced that malls can function from September 1. According to Munish, in less than 48 hours, Express Avenue managed to reopen 200 out of its 220 stores. “We have seen around 40% of previous year’s footfall in the first two days of reopening.”

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