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Despite low electric vehicle sales, retailers quick to install chargers

"Charge it" may soon have new meaning at shopping malls and retail centers across the country.
As sales of electric cars begin to pick up, retailers nationwide are installing electric vehicle charging stations in their parking lots so customers can plug in and juice up their vehicles while browsing inside.

Leading the way is drugstore chain Walgreen Co., which is installing chargers at about 800 stores nationwide.

Macy's Inc. is installing chargers at a handful of department stores in San Diego. Kohl's Corp. is undertaking a pilot program to equip 33 stores nationwide with charging stations, and Best Buy said it will test them at 12 locations.

Retailers view the chargers as a good investment for the future, a way to one-up competitors and burnish a green reputation.

Although adoption of electric cars has been tepid so far - only about 17,000 sold in the U.S. last year - many retail chains are hoping to win goodwill with eco-conscious, high-income customers by offering an amenity that very few actually need yet.

California leads the nation with about 89,000 registered electric cars on the road last year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

One roadblock for electric car sales has been the need for drivers to regularly recharge the batteries and the limited number of public places to do so.

There's even a term for it: "range anxiety," or the fear of getting stranded on the road with no outlet in sight. Only 5,084 public chargers are scattered around the country, and more than a quarter of them are in California, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Retailers are moving quickly to fill that void. And, for now, most are providing electricity for free.

At Walgreen "we said, 'Let's lead in this area,' " said Menno Enters, the Deerfield, Ill., drugstore chain's director of energy and sustainability. "We're all about convenience, and many of our stores are located around commuter routes. We realized that Walgreens was ideally situated to implement a strategy for electric chargers."

If the electric car movement takes off, Walgreen is hoping to snatch sales from nearby gas stations that "seek the same convenience-type customers," Enters said.

In the past three months, furniture giant Ikea has equipped five California stores along with a store in Portland, Ore., and one in Seattle with charging stations. Additional chargers are coming to locations in East Palo Alto, Calif., and Tempe, Ariz.

The Swedish retailer doesn't track how often the stations are used, but the chargers have been conversation pieces, said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth.

"You can just stand and watch folks driving by in the parking lot. They see the space and you can kind of see that 'oh wow, that's kind of neat' look on their faces," Roth said. "We view it as another aspect of the shopping experience."

Whether shoppers think so is up for debate.

At an Ikea in Covina, Calif., during a recent weekend, most shoppers walked into the store with nary a glance at the three chargers planted squarely in front of an entrance in the parking garage.

Although she's a frequent patron of the store, Jennifer Ingalls, 48, said she's never noticed the stations.

"I'm all for green, but that doesn't make me want to shop here more," said the 48-year-old human resources assistant. "I'm a big truck fan myself."

Retailers usually get most of the costs covered with subsidies by partnering with a handful of companies such as ECOtality and Coulomb Technologies that specialize in installing and supporting charging stations. These companies have in turn received money - millions of dollars, in some cases - from the Energy Department to build up an infrastructure that encourages increased use of electric vehicles.

350Green, a Los Angeles technology company that installs and manages charging stations, said it gets about 95 percent of its business from retailers. Some retailers split the cost with 350Green while others get much of the cost covered by federal subsidies, said Mariana Gerzanych, 350Green's chief executive. Clients include Walgreen and Simon Properties Group, a real estate company and mall operator.

Gerzanych said the economy has made more retailers interested in charging stations.

"It's a very competitive environment for retailers, and they don't want to take the wait-and-see approach," she said. "Retailers have been taking a very proactive approach to attract customers."

Some retailers are already hoping to squeeze some green out of being green.

The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., famous for its indoor theme park with roller coasters and an aquarium, charges $3 per hour for its chargers.

Upscale grocery chain Whole Foods Market, which has outfitted 13 stores with charging stations and plans to install an additional 60 or so this year, will experiment with "a slight" fee in some of its Chicago stores, said Kathy Loftus, the company's global energy specialist.

But critics point out that unless electric car sales take off, those parking spots with chargers probably will sit idle for years.

"If you install the stations, usually at one of the better parking spaces, and then that space sits empty, how do you justify that investment? It's a challenge from a management standpoint," said David Hurst, a senior analyst at Pike Research.

For now, some retailers and mall operators are willing to make that bet.

The South Coast Plaza shopping center in Costa Mesa, Calif., installed two charging stations in 2010 and three more last year, said Debra Gunn Downing, the mall's executive director of marketing. Some 1,100 cars have juiced up there so far.

"The cost for us is well worth it for the customer convenience," Gunn Downing said. "We find it is a good return on investment."
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