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Airport retail – can brands capture customers when their minds are somewhere else?

SimonBellI am fortunate enough to have a life and work that affords me the opportunity to travel, but unfortunately, it does mean that I spend a lot of time in airports. Whether in Sydney, Bangkok or Tokyo, airports are strange places. Mostly, they are big artificially lit boxes with forgettable interiors filled with people from somewhere else, on their way to someplace else.

According to the Economist (which I picked up in one such airport), the “golden hour” refers to the period between when passengers step through the airport security scanner and when they board. Here, travellers have more time and likely more money than they know what to do with (but also less luggage space for bulky purchases). It seems that they are low hanging fruit for smart brands.

Big chain players like McDonald’s and Starbucks are successful in their departure area offer. For the weary traveller who craves familiarity, what can be more comforting than the ubiquitous Big Mac Meal and Chai Tea Latte (also identically available in their neighbourhood mall wherever they come from)? Since there is an obvious utility value to businesses that feed, hydrate and entertain people when they are being held captive, bookstores/newsagents and technology shops are also the mainstay of many an airport. With availability and consumption of content increasingly moving online, it is clear that these outlets need to reinvent themselves. One idea is they could sell downloads for spare change, catering to those looking to unload their foreign coinage.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 presetTechnology puts forward strong propositions. Airport time is the perfect time for travellers to freely explore the latest wearables, headphone, tablet or mobile device. The formats used are often condensed versions of their sprawling high-street parent.

The categories of luxury and duty-free also do well in attracting customers, the latter for more obvious duty savings reasons. In Singapore, Changi amps the experience up further with slick pop-up bars that offer cocktail tastings during high-traffic hours (airport retailers know the flight schedules of travellers and can do more to act on this information). I have noticed that versus the high street, global luxury brands project a friendlier and less snobby demeanor in airports. Perhaps, with security concerns (hopefully) already taken care of, brands are thinking long term – posturing to an international audience who will make the purchase upon return to their countries of origin.

What then of our homegrown Australian brands? For travelers, armed with excess currency and families/friends waiting expectantly, the departure hall is the last chance to take something home from their vacation or business trips. Brands like Jurlique and RM Williams, which reek of authentic Australian luxe: born of the land, standing for excellence, great design and quality craftsmanship, have provenance on their side. In the context of an Australian international airport, these are qualities that should be leveraged. Compared with the high street, there is less competition and more opportunity to differentiate the home ground advantage. For example, Jurlique and RM Williams would be better able to broadcast their Australian origins in dedicated retail spaces than they’re managing to do in multi-label and multi-nationality outlets. Likewise, fine food purveyors like Simon Johnson and Victor Churchill could retail Australian packaged food, meats and sauces from the departure area. With the rise of culinary tourism, a gourmet foodie souvenir could be just what’s in order.

As for me, I’ll be on the lookout for some Hibiki whisky and Cherry-blossom rice topping when I’m departing from Tokyo’s Haneda next month.


By Simon Bell, executive director strategy, SE Asia Pacific & Japan, Landor.

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