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Opinion: Airport retail is evolving as brands establish flagships for global shoppers says Alex Avery

If once airport terminals were seen as dreary, soulless spaces where passengers had hours to spend choosing between a handful of expensive perfumes, the concept of shopping in glamorous surroundings has now taken off. Flagship high-street retailers such as John Lewis and Uniqlo are recognising the commercial value of brand exposure in terminals by creating engaging experiences for flyers.

Airports are high in both footfall and dwell time, further benefitting from a captive, international and often wealthy audience. This presents opportunities to locate a showpiece store offering great customer experience. In turn, the phenomenon is creating new demands on the type and function of commercial space requirements.

Global brands are keen to make a statement and, in order to do so, they are looking for units situated in prime locations, with generous store footprints and double height space, allowing them to be more innovative with merchandising while acting as a focal point. The challenge for design teams is to create an environment that simultaneously stamps an architectural footprint on the airport and also provides a space for retailers and their operational needs to flourish – without forgetting the need for efficient processing of passengers.

Airport retailing is no longer just about having a box to fill, with a one-size-fits-all approach and a uniform, fixed lease. As design teams cater to the needs of individual passengers, impressive design is becoming the norm, from luxury goods to food and beverage. The latter category is becoming increasingly innovative with units such as Jamie’s Italian at Gatwick and Heston Blumenthal’s Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow Terminal 2 demonstrating their increasing desire to take a bite out of the market with more exciting designs. Another example is Fuller’s space at Terminal 2. The brewer has developed an eye-catching lounge format of the standard you’d expect to see at a high-profile hotel. Individual seats for the lone traveller sit comfortably alongside bar-side seating and benches for bigger groups. There’s even a grab-and-go unit.

As new concepts take flight, there is also an increasing demand to incorporate flexible space into airport terminals, allowing brands and retailers to react quickly to new consumer trends. With the correct base building format and suitable structural and services design, different retail concepts, brands, customer experiences, facilities and information can come and go according to changing tastes, profiles and technologies.

This can only be achieved in a flexible environment and must include provision for promotional retail installations such as pop-up shops. For example, a temporary sandal concession, such as the popular Brazilian brand Havaianas, might appear during the summer getaway period.

We’re seeing a definite trend towards a wider range of brands and retailers aiming to make a marketing pitch in this cash-rich environment. The mix of tenants is changing as airports become shopping destinations in their own right, providing experiences that compete with superpowers like Westfield and Bluewater.

Ultimately, it’s clear that the voice of the customer needs to be at the very centre of terminal design and development, from day one. With top architects engaged on new projects, I expect airport retail to provide a space-age experience over the next decade. After all, until passengers can teleport, they will always want somewhere pleasant to shop, eat and drink.

Alex Avery is director of the airports, travel and commercial spaces division at Pragma, a St Ives Group company