Eat, Shop, Fly

Travelers at airports are annoyed, but retailers have a growing opportunity to attract, entertain and de-stress them
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Posted March 8, 2011
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Last fall, the glamour of air travel officially left the gate.

Headlines and TV reports blared throughout the 2010 Thanksgiving weekend about stepped-up airport security, humiliating pat-downs and invasive digital body scans.

That, along with increasing delays and decreasing services, puts travelers at the airport in a grumpy state of mind. Perversely, this stressed, preoccupied, grouchy consumer has given airport retailing its best opportunity ever to drive sales.

“Today’s travelers are spending as much time on the ground at the airport as they are on the flights themselves,” says Bruce Dybvad, president of Interbrand Design Forum (Dayton, Ohio). “Once through security, they’re ready to de-stress. And retailers have the opportunity to make them happy.”

That means upgrading the old newsstand-and-a-pack-of-gum formula. Attractively fashionable stores are selling branded merchandise. Spacious sit-down restaurants are offering gourmet-level meals. Branded kiosks are selling a growing variety of items – from headphones and jump drives to lotions and perfumes – with the swipe of a credit card (see sidebar). Health and beauty stores are offering merchandise and spa treatments. And what Dybvad calls “C-stores on steroids” are offering the usual grab-and-go opportunities but have upgraded the fare – gourmet, organic, vegetarian – and improved the sightlines and traffic flow not only for efficiency and mobility but also for visibility and allure.

Much of the focus is on food and beverage – and with a local angle. A Cibo Express Gourmet Market was recently installed at the Delta concourse of New York’s LaGuardia Airport, replacing a couple of national quick-serve brands like Sbarro pizza and Burger King.

The concept, developed by OTG Management (Philadelphia), is specifically designed to replace the bland could-be-anywhere feeling of the typical concourse with a strong local flavor. “We want customers to feel like they’re sitting in any New York restaurant,” says OTG ceo Rick Blatstein. So there’s a French bistro, New York-style steakhouse, custom burger joint, Brooklyn-style pizza offering and an espresso and coffee counter, all sleek and streamlined, with a single checkout line.

There are also plans for a seafood and raw bar, wine bar, noodle shop, Italian bistro, Jewish deli and gourmet market – other ingredients of the New York culinary mix.

Air Side Shopping

Though all those travelers wheeling luggage carts around the airport represent a captive audience ripe for picking, it’s not an easy one to isolate. It’s certainly clear that the best retail opportunities lie on what the industry calls “the air side” of the security checkpoints (as opposed to “the land side”). After surviving that rushing/herding/disrobing gauntlet, “Suddenly, the stress begins to disappear and there’s time to stroll the concourse,” says Randall Stone, senior partner at Lippincott (New York). The love-to-shop pheromones kick in.

Sophisticated business travelers who want to spend that time shopping are expecting the same brand presence and level of experience they get on the street. It’s a trend that began with duty-free shopping. “They’re attractive, well-laid-out stores with big-name luxury brands,” says Steven Derwoed, director of retail in Callison’s New York office. “The brands tend toward open-sell merchandising, which encourages speed of transaction. And while the idea of saving money is attractive, it’s the quality of the offering that drives the experience.”

The same quality of experience has been extended in some European airports. “Terminals 4 and 5 in London’s Heathrow Airport have some of the same retail brands – Harrod’s, Bulgari, Rolex, Watches of Switzerland – that any destination urban shopping street would be happy to have,” says Derwoed. Callison recently designed the Heathrow stores for Watches of Switzerland, selling the same high-end merchandise as in its London stores, but in an environment that takes into account the specific needs of the airport shopper.

“On Brompton Road, the transaction can take 45 minutes in a private lounge over Champagne,” Derwoed says. “In the airport, they often sell a six-figure watch in five minutes. We tried to create a comparably luxurious environment in fewer square feet and to offer dedicated areas that allow the same intimacy of transaction, only standing up.”

Dining In

Other airport retailers trying to pinpoint the concourse demographic know they first have to target two consumer groups: the business traveler and leisure traveler. What they have in common is time on their hands and the search for a convivial dining experience. But there are differences, too.

“Business travelers are savvy and experienced, and generally alone,” says Stone. “They probably already have their reading material and headphones. They’ll more likely seek out a good place to sit and eat or have a drink, watch a game or check their e-mails.”

“Bars continue to be in strong demand,” says Mike Caro, vp of Airmall USA (Pittsburgh), which develops and operates retail for airports, “but the desire is for quality surroundings. And TVs are a must!”

Leisure travelers, more likely to be traveling in groups or with families, are looking for something to entertain the kids, says Matt Hyatt, senior associate at Bergmeyer & Associates (Boston), “and they’d rather eat than sit at the gate. But they’re almost certainly lugging more stuff, so they need wider aisles and places to put bags and carts down. On the other hand, they’re probably less time-sensitive than the business traveler, who’s concerned about missing a meeting or making a connection.”

Those connections are becoming more and more a reality of air travel – and more of an opportunity. “People making connections, wandering around an airport for an hour or so, could be anywhere,” says Callison’s Derwoed. “A local reference personalizes the journey for them – a mural, a sculpture. If they suddenly realize that this generic agglomeration of concourses, gates and walking sidewalks is actually Detroit, they might be attracted to local color: a shop selling items related to the auto industry or the Motown music story, or stuffed animals in a store linked to the Detroit Zoo. They might see it as a chance to buy a memento for their family or co-workers.”

Rocky Mountain High

The right local eating experience might help set that mood. “The consumer is frustrated and wants to break out,” says Roslindale, Mass., architect Derek Rubinoff, explaining his concept for the Colorado Sports Bar & Grill at Denver International Airport. “So we gave them blue skies, majestic mountains and swooping, sloping landscapes.”The restaurant’s mural-filled design attempts to suggest what Rubinoff calls “a transportive” environment, referencing the area’s skiing, ice-climbing, mountain biking, hang gliding and kayaking.

There are TVs, of course, but they’re set up in the 7-foot soffits so if customers want to sit and talk rather than watch a game, it’s easy to do so. And if they want to watch, the dark blue walls and ceiling provide a no-glare background.

Below the waistline, however, colors are light and neutral, to relax the diner. “Ultimately,” says Rubinoff, “it’s all about taking the stress out of the experience, if only for an hour.”

Food is one familiar way to the heart. Another is well-presented merchandise in an inviting environment. So whether it’s a slice of pizza in a Brooklyn-style joint in a food court or a Rolex watch in a lush high street store on the concourse, airports are trying to turn their environments into places where travelers don’t mind spending time – or money.

Automated Retail

With the cost of airport retail space rising and the demand for goods broadening, several national retail brands are establishing their airport presence with sophisticated technology. Best Buy, Apple, Body Shop, Reebok and Proactiv Solution are among those installing automated digital stations throughout airports, selling relatively small and easy items with the swipe of a credit card.

“They’re giant vending machines,” says Randall Stone, senior partner at Lippincott (New York). ZoomSystems (San Francisco), which builds and installs many of these 7-foot-high, 27-square-foot devices, calls theirs “Zoom Shops.” They’re not only in about 32 different airports around the country but also in train stations, malls, on campuses and military bases, in hotels, resorts, hospitals and even inside other stores, such as Macy’s.

“They’re branded with the retailer’s logo, colors, aesthetics and signage to look just like a mini-store,” Stone says. And they’re designed for easy and secure transactions. Not unlike selecting a Hershey Bar or bag of Frito’s, the shopper can peer inside at the merchandise selection and shop using a touch-screen interface. After the credit card information is verified, out it comes: a USB power adapter from Apple, headphones from Best Buy, battery pack from Sony, revitalizing toner from Proactiv Solutions, lotion from Body Shop or, for the first time, apparel items. Reebok shops carrying a line of Reebok Retrosport licensed T-shirts, representing nine different National Football League teams, have been installed in 20 U.S. airports.

“It’s easy and efficient,” says ZoomSystems ceo Gower Smith, “and secure – the purchase is not fully charged until the product is scanned and removed.”

Is it the future of airport retail? Could be, if ZoomSystems’ claim is correct that the machines have the highest sales per square foot of any retail store – and even higher in airports.