Behind the conveyors: Unpacking the pros and cons of airport stores.
In the dynamic world of retail, two seasoned experts, Glynn Davis and Matthew Valentine, go head-to-head each month. With sharply contrasting opinions, they dissect the hottest retail topics.
This month, they spar over airport stores.
Get ready for Glynn Davis and Matthew Valentine’s clash of perspectives in this edition of “Retail Face-Off.”
Cons by Matthew Valentine:
All stores exist to make money, but airport stores can feel like a cynical ploy to exploit a captive audience.
In theory, airport retailing should be a good thing. In practice it’s usually a poor distraction from the grind of modern air travel. Travellers are left with the feeling that airport retailing is a cynical effort to part them from their money when they are stuck at a transport hub.
Picture a scenario: you are travelling with your family, including a couple of already bored children. You have endured the stressful process of packing the bags and loading the car, then a three hour drive in heavy traffic to reach the airport. You have been relieved of parking fees that represent the price of a secondhand hatchback, waited for a crowded bus from the car park to the departure terminal, waited again to check in your bags, then queued to go through security checks. You have apologised for your youngest child, who was secretly carrying scissors.
Ready for something – anything – uplifting you emerge into a compulsory one-way trail through an endless duty free shop. Here you fend off requests for enormous gift boxes of chocolates or sweets which your children want to eat in the confined space of an eight hour flight, and carry everybody’s hand luggage while your partner examines perfume/watches/single malt at great length. They eventually decide to make any purchases on the return leg of the journey, just as you trip over somebody else’s wheeled suitcase.
Finally getting to the departure lounge you begin a slow trudge around further expensive stores before asking for a divorce, or pretending to suffer a medical emergency, so that you can sit down. Eventually you will be left, with the bags again, in an adult creche facility (a bar) to wait for the flight to be announced. Your family, which normally shops in Aldi, will be window shopping at the Cartier store. You hope they won’t buy anything this time.
You can see why people look forward to the shops at the airport. Some people, that is. For the rest, airports feel like a cynically-designed shopping centre that you are forced to spend time in, after demands that you check in early for your flight.
For these people, it is impossible to separate the stores, no matter how attractive, from the wider experience of travelling – the queues, the crowds, the delays and the stress. The shops cannot be enjoyed in isolation, because they come with a lot of context.
Opting out of the shopping, or from some kind of consumption, is difficult. Simply sitting still with a book involves an uncomfortable metal chair, surrounded by empty food packaging and other people’s children.
Airport travellers are the ultimate captive audience, and most people don’t enjoy the sensation of being captive. Yet airport stores emphasise that experience. Travellers sense the retailers rubbing their hands together at the prospect of sales, rather than offering them something that would ease their journey.
So what is the alternative? Stores at airports need to make people feel they are being enticed inside, rather than forced. The stores should soothe or entertain, rather just bombard customers with brand names and bright lights.
All stores exist to sell goods and make money, and of course airport stores are no different. But airport retailers always seem a little too fond of the fact that their customers can’t escape. A constant offer of stuff – from fashion to jewellery via cosmetics and electronics – is no relief from the environment in which travellers are stuck.
Pampering experiences might do the trick, of course, or economic relaxation booths that offer a quiet space without paying for an expensive private lounge. A chance to enjoy the lifestyle of a luxury brand for a while without actually spending thousands on a watch.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to make do with cocktails.
Pros by Glynn Davis:
Travelling back from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s after a business trip involved a delayed flight back from the city’s main airport. Although I had vowed to avoid drinking in the bar there was little else to do in the five hours I was held captive in an incredibly boring concourse. It proved to be a mistake but thankfully help was on the way.
Back in the UK a revolution was taking place as the British Airports Authority (BAA) was overhauling the customer experience in airports by bringing in shopping centre-type environment – beginning with Heathrow – involving myriad attractive retailers and food & drink brands. Even if you didn’t fancy shopping you could at least have a browse around and then kill some more time over a coffee and take in a meal while waiting for your flight.
It’s easy to forget how sterile airports were back then. Proof of how successful the overhaul has been, and how travellers have lapped up airport retail, can be seen in the fact stores in such locations and other travel hubs including train stations generate incredibly high levels of turnover.
For many retailers these stores generate the biggest revenues across their entire portfolios. It’s why there is always great demand among retailers and food operators to nab airport pitches when they become available. It’s incredibly competitive.
Among those retailers that have made hay while travellers have increasingly sought out the sun is WH Smith. The business might have been retreating from many high streets around the UK but its presence in airports and train stations around the world has really taken off. Its recent half-year results revealed its travel division represented over 70% of group sales and 85% of its profits.
Many other retailers and food brands have continued to flock to airports and travel hubs as they lap up the ability of these locations to deliver reliable footfall compared with high streets and shopping centres where it has been much more erratic. The reliability of transport hubs to consistently deliver high numbers of people to the thresholds of retail and hospitality units is proving extremely attractive.
And there appears to be plenty of runway left judging by the recent results from travel specialist SSP – that operates brands like Pret, Hard Rock Café and Starbucks, which revealed UK sales at airports and train stations increased 22% over the last two months. This has given it the confidence to forecast that like-for-like sales growth will be up by 6-10% for 2024.
As work-from-home patterns continue to be difficult to predict and the economic backdrop remains tough it is likely that trading patterns will stay unsettled for some time to come for the retail and hospitality industries so the certainty of consistently heavy footfall at airports and travel hubs represents something of an oasis.
Anything that puts that dire Los Angeles experience firmly in the past is a good thing in my book so I’m giving airport retailing clearance to continue to take flight and develop even further in providing travellers and tourists a comfortable and stimulating environment.