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John Ryan

Making ‘Airside’ Retail Appealing

WHSmith opens a 6000 square foot store in the Birmingham Airport

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NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES, T-shirts shouting “I ❤ [wherever you happen to be]” and a smattering of souvenirs like bars of chocolate and mugs bearing images of the local tourist landmarks. Most people are likely to encounter that, or something pretty close to it, when passing a grab ‘n go news outpost in an airport’s “airside.”

It can be a little dispiriting as, all too frequently, most things you either don’t want or are so generic as to be not worth spending time looking at. Enter WHSmith, the travel (and U.K. high street) giant that continues to open branches worldwide, and which does much to buck this perception.

Its latest iteration is found in Birmingham Airport, in the heart of the U.K.’s Midlands.

At 6000 square feet, this is a very large store by the standards of the sector and, unlike most, it combines the glitz of a digital store frontage (the whole of the shopfront is a screen with moving content) with a much quieter interior – the sort of place that might actually make you browse. This is particularly the case in the bookshop area, where time during the “Golden Hour” (the 60 minutes between clearing security and boarding your aircraft) is fiercely competed for.

The plain wood ceiling and upper perimeter baffles, set against a dark background, give the sense of a haven away from the frantic dash that is the public area of an airport: it even comes close to being calming. WHSmith also manages to create separate merchandise category areas, meaning the store looks different from an assembly of assorted merchandise where the only unifying feature is the ceiling beneath which the products are displayed.

It is possible for an airside newsagent to make an impact rather than being a “needs must” affair. It does, however, require a considerable amount of thought to make it work. Well done, WHS.

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John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.

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