Airport retail: Reaching new heights

Airport passengers are demanding more choice, availability and diversity when it comes to shopping, prompting airports and airport retailers to create more inviting, comfortable and engaging experiences.

Airport retailing is a growing market. In fact, for many airports retail is a vital revenue stream and so it’s important that they create an environment that will attract retailers and make the most of a captive audience, as well as set them apart them from the competition.

A study on airport retailing in Europe, published earlier this year by Mintel, shows that while passenger numbers have fallen in recent years, spend per customer has continued rise and this pattern is expected to continue. ‘Airports are international businesses and so are the first businesses to benefit from an upturn in economic activity around the world,’ says Mintel director of retail research, Richard Perks. ‘So it would be wrong to think that just because much of Europe is in recession and Southern Europe in particular has continuing major problems, that their airports will also be in decline. In fact they are seeing growth from both business travellers and inbound tourism, and their retail arms are prospering on the back of them.’

John Lewis, Ernest Jones and Aspinal of London are among a wave of retailers in the UK opening stores for the first time in an airport in order to test their outlets with an international audience. Referring to the new John Lewis store set to open at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 in June 2014, managing director, Andy Street says: ‘This new opening is a huge and exciting step forward in developing our international strategy, giving us access to one of the most concentrated, valuable and influential markets in the world. We recently made clear our ambition to further develop our online presence internationally in addition to increasing our international wholesale business. This opportunity at Heathrow perfectly complements and enhances these initiatives.’


At London Gatwick’s South Terminal 10 new and refreshed stores opened in August this year as part of a £21 million refurbishment of the retail space. Aspinal of London and Ernest Jones both unveiled their first ever airport outlets and Harrods opened a 557 sq m fashion department store, while a further 12 stores are set to launch in the terminal by the end of the year. Dixons Retail also launched the first in a series of new concept stores for its travel brand, Dixons Travel.

A key part of the Gatwick South Terminal development was making sure the retail offering worked with the wider passenger experience through the airport. ‘One of the biggest bugbears of passengers is waiting/queueing for security so one of the first projects we completed was a £45 million [overhaul] of South Terminal security,’ says Spencer Sheen, head of retail at London Gatwick. ‘This meant taking a lot of retail space out to provide a much better security space. The view was that if passengers arrive in the departure lounge quickly and efficiently, having had excellent customer service, they would be much more inclined to make the most of the retail outlets on offer before they board. The physical move and redevelopment of security in South Terminal also allowed us to reconfigure the space in the departure lounge, leading to the opening of Europe’s largest World Duty Free store in September 2012 and leading into the major revamp we’ve been doing this year.’


With the average dwell time around 75 minutes in the departure lounges at Gatwick, the airport has introduced new technologies and services to help passengers make the most of their time. As well as a new website with an extensive ‘shopping and eating’ section, the airport has added a display on the larger flight information screens, which gives passengers a recommendation of where to eat based on the time left before boarding. Store locator tablets are also being installed across the airport, while a ‘shop and drop’ service allows passengers to shop in the departure lounge and pick up their purchases on the way home. ‘The South Terminal redevelopment that is going on now is bringing the vision of our passengers to life,’ says Sheen.

Today, airports are competing less on price and more on quality of experience, maintains Lewis Allen of Portland Design, which has worked with a number of airports across Europe. The challenge, he says, is creating a commercial area that is consistent with the high street but acknowledges that people’s mindsets are in a slightly different place. It’s also important to get the range right in terms of making it relevant to a traveling consumer.

‘Duty Free shopping used to be a must for air travellers, but this has changed,’ adds Lloyd Blakey, creative director at Innovare Design. ‘Consumers are far more savvy and demanding about price, quality and experience. [Airports] need to differentiate themselves.’

According to the Mintel study on airport retailing in Europe, while airport retailers don’t on the whole face the same problem in attracting consumer spend as shops on the high street given their captive audience, they need to be seen as price competitive against high street rivals in an era of non-duty free. Commonly employed tactics used to generate shopper interest on the high street, such as pop-up shops, could become more visible in the airport retail arena, says the report.

‘Passengers expect more from airport shopping, especially with what’s on offer in some of the airports in the Middle East and Asia,’ states Sheen. ‘They want more choice, availability and diversity for both shopping generally and also food and drink. Competition is really key for us; we want to be right up there with the likes of Westfield, Bluewater etc.’

The Gatwick Airport World Duty Free store regularly hosts events, tastings and experiential displays to enhance the retail shopping experience. ‘Airports do have quite a lot of space to play with and we regularly have experiential activities happening, which are carefully selected for air travellers,’ continues Sheen.


Outside of the UK, the final phase of a five-year airside repositioning of Lisbon International Airport in Portugal has been completed and opened to passengers, with the retail planning and interior design led by Broadway Malyan. The project for ANA - Aeroports de Portugal, the Portuguese National Airports Authority - features an extension to the existing terminal building, as well as a significant upgrade of the retail offer and public concourses.

‘Airports are more than gateways which passengers pass through and they should project the excitement of travel, while offering comfort and a wide range of high quality retail experiences and waiting facilities,’ says Stuart Rough, chairman of Broadway Malyan. The new retail opportunities at Lisbon Airport have attracted a number of international high-end fashion retailers, such as Burberry, Mont Blanc and Ralph Lauren, while French retailer FNAC is also set to open a new store.

And in the US, the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport has recently undergone an extensive transformation. LA-based Montalba Architects has taken its luxury and boutique design experience to a larger scale with the design for the new Great Hall interiors in Bradley West and storefront design for the new Duty Free Shops (DFS) Galleria. ‘Montalba’s role as the design architect on both the Great Hall concessions development by Westfield, LLC and the DFS Galleria by DFS Group Limited has provided the opportunity for an integrated experience within the newly transformed terminal, evoking a sense of transparency and urban-like passage, while maintaining local brand identity within a larger context of a luxury airport experience,’ says a spokesperson for the architecture firm.

With the Great Hall project, Montalba has separated the space into two distinct experiences looking to California’s coastline as inspiration for dynamic spatial organisation. The organising principles of the ‘edge’ and the ‘island’ help define the 6,500 sq m concession and retail area with flexible floor plans to accommodate rotating tenants. ‘The airport concourse is often the first and last impression visitors receive of a destination,’ says David Montalba, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Montalba. ‘Favourable opinions are formed through design that engages people while easing their way through the travel process. These two projects have given us the opportunity to touch and influence all aspects of the international terminal.’

The airport shopper may be a captive audience but their expectations are nonetheless high, maintains Nigel Collett, CEO of rpa:group which designed the new World Duty Free store at Gatwick. ‘Travel is still a high ticket item and a special occasion for most of us, and we therefore expect the hotel experience to start in the terminal,’ he says. ‘No frills just won’t fly!’

Top image: New media and entertainment studio Moment Factory collaborated with Marcela Sardi of Sardi Design and Mike Rubin of MRA International to create an advanced multimedia environment at the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

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