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SCENES FROM A MALL

When was the last time you shopped till you dropped or stopped on a whim for a meal at a swanky restaurant in a mall? The economic downturn has forced us to reserve such splurging for special occasions. And with the multiplex-producer stand-off ensuring a Bolly no-show for more than a month now, when was the last time you walked into a multiplex to watch a film? Which forces us to ask, if mall footfalls aren’t dropping — and they don’t really seem to be — what are people doing there?

Fun munch

No matter how light the Calcuttan’s pocket, eat he must. So why not eat for less? The solution lies in the food court. What has always been the preferred adda zone for in-between times — and meal times, too — is the perfect hangout now. So what if some of the tabletops are more sparsely covered than before, the seats are all going full.

Teeming with hundreds of hungry shoppers and browsers, it is one zone of every mall that always seems to be packed to capacity. During t2’s mid-week evening trip to the food courts at South City and City Centre, the tables were full of couples on the lookout for some cosy moments and groups of friends looking to catch up. While some tables were devoid of any kind of plates or cups at all, others bore only a few cola glasses. “In the past two months, the food court traffic has gone up by 70 to 75 per cent,” says Sourav Dasgupta of Mani Square.

But we wonder whether that translates to higher spends. “Earlier, we used to eat a lot on a visit to the food court, but these days, it is just a good place to hang out. It is cheap and no one will ask us to leave. It is secure and comfortable,” says Arnesh Chatterjee, a teenager who we found hanging around with his friends at South City. This combination of attractions is harder to find than it may seem. “Even if you go to a coffee shop, you have to order something. Here we have the option of not ordering anything at all,” he explains.

Aimless roamers and window shoppers

This category has always comprised the bulk of a mall’s footfalls, and it is the only category that seems to be growing despite the cash and film crunch. Walk into any of the city’s malls — big or small — and you will not have to look for the people walking about without any plan or purpose. They loiter the corridors, lean against the railings, peer at the pretty young things… they are just about anywhere. “The traffic of people just walking about from floor to floor seems to be increasing by the day. Recently, I observed a group of young people who spent a good four-five hours in South City Mall, but when they left, none had a single shopping bag in hand,” says homemaker Shobha Sengupta, 52.

Even the family crowd can be seen biding its time, doing a whole lot of nothing. “Apart from malls, there is really no place to go to in Calcutta. So on Sundays, we invariably find ourselves heading to some mall or the other. We grab a light bite at the food court but rarely shop. The two hours that we spend just walking about the mall gives my entire family some much-needed exercise,” laughed banker Sumit Balasubramaniam, when t2 chanced upon him, wife Rekha and their two school-going children at City Centre.

Food courts boast the maximum traffic in all city malls. Picture by Rashbehari Das

And with the downturn slamming the brakes on JLT (just like that) shopping, mall-goers are keeping themselves satisfied with the next best thing — window shopping. “Just going to a mall and simply staring at the shop windows with their beautiful displays is therapy. I do it every weekend. I find a lot of other people doing it too,” says software engineer Debamita Chatterjee.

Bench warmers

If not the food court, the benches and the sofas, placed at various nooks and corners of these malls are scoring as hangout hotspots these days. Couples, families, kids — they can all be seen there. Much in demand is the big wooden bench in City Centre’s HangOut food zone that snakes its way around the junk jewellery stall. “We like sitting here. It is nice and cosy and away from the hustle and bustle. Earlier we used to shop a lot. But now whenever we come to the mall, we usually sit on the sofa, chat and leave. At best, we have a cup of coffee or grab an ice cream,” said Sanghamitra Dey, a college-goer we met sitting for an hour on the concrete bench in front of the Shoppers Stop store in City Centre.

Always cool

The intolerable heat and the even more merciless power cuts may be behind us now (gulp, we hope!), but the cool confines of a mall are still luring a lot of people looking to beat the heat, especially during the day. After all, where else can you hang out in sub 22 degree conditions at virtually no cost to yourself. “Walking around Park Street or going to Nicco Park is out when it’s sunny. So we head to the nearest mall,” smiled college student Sudipto Dutta, spotted at Forum Mall on a sultry May afternoon.

“I was at South City Mall on a weekday last week and it was overcrowded, although most shops were empty. One could very well gauge that most had come to escape from the heat,” says actress Dipannita. “It is much better for a couple to sit on a bench in South City than to hold hands near Prinsep Ghat in this heat,” laughs actress June.

“Of late, the number of people walking in just to savour the AC has increased. But we haven’t really put the brakes on such entry because sometimes such footfalls do translate into sales,” reveals a mall source.

And in a city where power cuts spare none, the mall often becomes the last refuge. “Whenever there is a power cut extending beyond an hour, my father-in-law goes off to South City Mall, a 10-minute walk from home. He spends hours browsing books at Starmark and only comes back when the power is restored,” says Lake Gardens resident Mandira Bhattacharya.

Mall as a tourist destination

The Victoria Memorial, Birla Planetarium and Howrah Bridge have new companions in malls as they find their way to the list of tourist attractions for many a traveller. “Recently my relatives from Durgapur were hell-bent on going to South City Mall during a trip to town,” says PR professional Anirban Dasgupta.

“Our mall has already captivated millions of tourists with its image, design, unique retail mix and a host of entertainment and food options,” says Sanjeev Mehra, vice president, mall operations, South City Mall. Last week, a family of four from Chandernagore was seen happily checking out Mani Square. “We don’t have anything like this in Chandernagore. On our last trip, we missed out on this visit. But this time, we made it a point to come here,” smiles Juhi Bose, 15.

Free ride

They were always a hit, but now, the cheap/free services are superhit. The mehndiwalas, for instance, are doing brisk business, with quite a few of the aimless roamers becoming customers. “I just came to the mall to chill out. Since there was nothing much to do, I decided to kill some time by getting some mehndi on my hands,” smiled college student Pooja Surekha at City Centre.

Over the past month, balloons in all shapes, sizes and colours have also made it to the budget-buy list of many. “Ever since my son saw my neighbour’s daughter with a bunny-shaped balloon from here, he has been pestering me for one. I drove to South City Mall just to get it,” said entrepreneur Ritesh Mukherjee.

And what better place than the giant screen of a mall to catch all the IPL action? Many of the city’s malls have sizeable crowds milling in front of their screens to catch the matches, ball by ball. “We have a huge crowd in the Kund during match days. A lot of young people come to the mall just to watch the matches,” says Vivek Banerjee, marketing manager, City Centre, which has erected a giant screen to beam the IPL matches live.

Whether they are buyers or not, Calcutta seems at home with the mall.

So much for Mamata’s mall bashing!

They do it too!

Neeraj Surana (model )

I frequent South City Mall a lot. I love going to the food court and the video game parlour.

 

Mir (funnyman and t2 columnist)

I have a limited budget. I mostly go to buy music and movies. This no films-no shopping-no eating out phase is also a good time to notice the marble quality and the mall architecture!

 

Jessica Gomes (model)

I have cut down on shopping a lot since not many shows are happening and you can’t keep spending. I mostly go to South City to eat at the food court.

 

Nil (fashion designer)

Whenever I go to malls these days, it is either to frequent the coffee shops or do focussed shopping.

 

 

(What do you go to a mall for? Tell t2@abpmail.com)

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