A departure for retailers

As check-in times get earlier, passengers have time and money to spend in an airport’s terminal. Now Guy Woodward finds retailers trying out new formats

Given the turmoil experienced by the travel industry over the past 12 months, the British Airports Authority’s recent £2m rise in operating profits is all the more impressive. Intriguingly, the chief contributor was the retail sector where, despite a reduction in flight numbers, income rose by 5 per cent, with the average passenger passing through BAA’s airports spending almost £4 on a variety of goods.

Airports are increasingly zeroing in on the benefits of a captivating retail presence. As check-in times get earlier and passengers dwell for longer periods, increased retail space is turning airports into mini-shopping centres. And with footfall likely to increase in the long term and projects such as the £8bn fifth terminal at London’s Heathrow approaching the check-out, interior design consultancies are queuing up to pay their dues.

‘The opportunities are immense and airport authorities are capitalising on this,’ says Alan Thompson, senior creative consultant at Rodney Fitch & Co, which is currently working on layouts for the revamped Turin airport.

‘Places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are almost branding themselves as sophisticated shopping centres in their own right.’

And, due to the international nature of the travel market, many of the design guidelines that apply in the UK can be translated across the globe as airports worldwide wake up to the potential of these revenue streams.

JHP designed the initial expansion of Heathrow’s retail presence ten years ago, and has since delivered layouts in At

hens, Barcelona, Munich, Zurich and Hong Kong, among others. Steve Collis, the consultancy’s strategic director, says retail space is becoming more and more important.

‘A lot of airports were designed without commercial premises in mind,’ he comments.

‘But that’s changing. With new projects and expansions, retail is now a primary part of the design brief. It’s getting to the stage where we’re being asked to design the retail presence first and then the operator is going to the architect to build it. It used to be the other way round.’

Such is the stature of many airport retail spaces, there is evidence of local trade lending airports a destinational element to their customer-base. But for most consumers, shopping within the terminal remains a spontaneous, impulsive experience. And there is a big difference in designing layouts and interiors for transitory, as opposed to dedicated, trade.

‘High street shoppers on a Saturday morning will go to enormous lengths to find what they want,’ says Collis. ‘In an airport, if you can’t find something, people don’t bother asking for help. So retail space needs to be bright, accessible and easy to shop.’

And durable – with over a million passengers a week going through Heathrow alone (due to rise to 1.5m with the completion of Terminal 5) wear and tear is a big factor. Callum Lumsden, managing director of Lumsden Design Partnership, which designed the American Express presence at seven UK terminals, says the impact of luggage and trolleys means ‘displays need to be made of sturdy stuff’.

Open spaces and wide aisles are also a pre-requisite and open frontages are not just practical, but an integral part of the formula to make stores more inviting.

‘No windows, no doors,’ says Collis. ‘The further people go in, the more worried they are about missing flight information. Large and deep is difficult. You need to make interiors shallow and visible.’

BAA design consultant Raymond Turner agrees. ‘The most challenging aspect is that you are effectively designing for two different audiences. The first group has plenty of time to spare and is very keen to be engaged, while the second knows the airport well and wants to go straight through to the departure gates. It’s imperative that the shops have a very open thoroughfare. That way you can cater for the two routes through – those who meander and those who fast-track.’

For the same reason, easy access to goods, and clearly visible pricing and signage are both imperative, particularly given that retailers are catering for an international audience. ‘Your catchment area is the entire planet,’ adds Collis. ‘You’re dealing with a very complex mix of demographics, cultures and nationalities.’

More and more retailers are coming to the conclusion that the cocktail, and the resulting headache, are worth the effort. Heathrow’s Terminals 3 and 4 have both been subject to a revamp of their retail areas recently, with new entrants such as Paul Smith and Pringle upping the quality.

Nike is among the tenants keen to be at the forefront of the increased commercial prominence of airport retail space and has commissioned Enterprise IG to overhaul its presence. The consultancy will address media, ambience, sound, graphics, product presentation and spatial use in an effort to upgrade the environment in line with what it calls ‘growing customer expectations’.

And optician chain David Clulow and lingerie group Rigby & Peller are among two retailers which have recently chosen airport locations to test new store formats, created by Portland Design, before rolling out to high street locations.

Such a maturing of the airport retail market poses an interesting opportunity for retail designers. Perhaps this area will begin to lead the way in encouraging more innovative store formats across Britain’s high street brands.

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