Comment: Airport shoppers dining out on digital distraction need a new approach says Olly Chubb of Portland

Airside once delivered what every retailer craved – a captive audience.

Clearing security propelled people into a parallel universe where they found themselves with plenty of time, and little to do. As people waited dutifully to board their flight, duty-free shopping was not so much an option, but a necessity – an activity that was imperative to delay the slow creep of inevitable boredom.

But things have changed. Today, 57% of travellers never even set foot in a duty-free store – a 10% increase from five years ago (1). Why? Put simply, they don’t have to.

The immediate gratification offered by seamless digital technology has encouraged the mainstream to adopt a diva mentality. People are no longer willing to have their way of life compromised when they are on the move and travellers expect more from the in-between travel hubs they pass through.

These demands are being realised as WiFi evolves from an add-on to a utility – and with 98% of travellers carrying at least one device when they travel (and 70% carrying two) (2), virtually every traveller is now able to access the same bewildering array of entertainment airside, as they do in the comfort of their own home.

So, while retailers continue to chase footfall through a ‘browse and buy’ model, it is the food and beverage concepts who benefit, offering people the perfect WiFi enabled wonderland in which to ‘eat and stream’.

Why wander aimlessly through duty-free when you can watch dragons, intrigue, sex and white walkers on your screen, while simultaneously satisfying your appetite for more basic sustenance?

WiFi has become the most popular airside pastime and is used by 52% of passengers – compared to 46% who visit food and beverage destinations, and 44% who go shopping (3). And the number of people using WiFi would be significantly higher if log-in experiences didn’t require a PhD in Computer Science and the patience of a saint.

Not only are duty-free retailers competing for attention against the entertainment travellers carry with them – but they are also being challenged by time and state of mind.

In 2016 the average traveller spent just 133 minutes passing through an airport, down from 150 minutes in 2013 (4). The less time travellers spend airside, the smaller the window of opportunity is for retailers – and the less likelihood there is of unplanned, impulse purchases. Additionally, shopping is best suited to a certain emotional state, and stress, which is something nine in ten business travellers say they suffer (5), is not conducive to casual browsing and buying.

However, there is still a huge opportunity for airside retailers, not least because 81% of non-shoppers would consider shopping in duty-free in the future (6) and 56% of travellers say they’d be encouraged to head airside earlier if there were special discounts to take advantage of (7).

For airports, brands and operators to successfully engage the modern connected traveller, new digital services, hybridised concepts and smarter master planning solutions will need to be developed to leverage the possibilities offered by WiFi and to create an experiential ecosystem that facilitates an ‘eat, stream, browse and buy’ journey to and through airports. This evolution should elevate airports beyond a simple space to shop and transform them into a unique destination in their own right – an experience that excites the 61% of travellers who consider a strong sense of place to be an important part of their overall airport experience (8).

The importance of such a holistic, integrated experience is apparent across luxury retail. With online channels expected to account for 40% of growth in the luxury market before 2022 (9), capturing the imagination of airside shoppers through digital channels and memorable moments will be essential if airports are to build on the 6% of global luxury spend they have already captured (10).

The dynamic between shop and shopper has changed forever and the balance of power has shifted firmly to the shopper. Though airside is still a clearly demarcated space, from the perspective of travellers, who exist in a blended reality of blurred boundaries, it makes little difference.

Brands can no longer expect success simply by being airside. Retailers must see themselves through this wider lens and understand how to connect with the expectations, habits, lifestyles and mindsets of people – and provide a compelling reason for them to become shoppers again.

Olly Chubb is head of strategy and Insights at Portland


1.Counter Intelligence Retail

2.SITA Passenger IT Trends Survey 2017

3.SITA Passenger IT Trends Survey 2017

4.Nigel Dolby Consulting

6.Counter Intelligence Retail

7.Priority Pass


9.Altagamma & Exane BNP Paribas

10.Bain & Company