Fuelled by strategic brand partnerships and the customer-centric use of technology, are airports turning into our new ‘third place’?
Starbucks has, of course, long made the claim that its brand is the third place for people after the social environments of home and work. So in the context of travel, can airports ever become so popular that people actually want to visit and spend time at them on a journey, in effect becoming our third place after home and end destination?
And, if so, what does this mean for travel retail experiences in the future? Does the role of retail brands have to change? And what role do airport brands play in this context?
Traditionally, being in-transit has been the least enjoyable part of travel for many people. In fact, a large percentage find simply reaching their intended destinations to be the best part of the journey.
Fortunately, many airports are busy figuring out how to make the customer experience more efficient, relevant, and enjoyable. They are working to become more than just airports. And using technology in
a more customer-focused way helps airports evolve into digitally enhanced destination brands.
In addition to testing out innovations, airports are partnering with food and retail outlets as well as airlines to offer travellers a more enjoyable, convenient experience while shopping in transit.
Technology certainly promises to make the flying experience easier, but airports may see their greatest financial opportunities in non-flying revenue.
Faster ticketing, check-in and security processes mean that travellers may potentially spend more time at the airport. If the airport itself becomes a desirable destination, passengers won’t mind lingering. Some may even arrive earlier or stay longer simply because it’s a fun place to be, while non-travellers might come just to experience what the airport has to offer.
Multi-media entertainment, transmitters that send messages about retail discounts, and virtual shopping walls featuring QR codes will all be part of a seamless experience that entices travellers to stay longer and spend more.
At its best, the airport is an integrator in which practical technology applications and direct partnerships with other brands can create “joined up experiences”.
I believe the following five trends will revolutionise the travel retail experience of the future.
Beyond time and space
Shopping does not require a predetermined sequence of events in a certain location in which a person needs to close the deal. Online and mobile shopping, for example, makes it possible to gather information, choose products, pay for merchandise and organise delivery outside of a brick and mortar store, fundamentally changing the economics of retail space.
Some consumers will still go out of their way to see and experience the merchandise first hand. Instead of focusing on the actual duty free retail sales at the airport, it will be more significant to see how many people are convinced to purchase before, during or after their travel retail experience.
Physical retail spaces at airports will need to take on a new role, offering an integrated experience – a unique, memorable moment within the traveller’s journey.
It will be important to connect and stay connected with passengers before and after they walk through the store. This will also change how we calculate the value of individual retail spaces – for both retailers and airports.
From an omni-channel to a brand experience
A touchpoint can have a stronger impact when people interact with it in a different context. Strategic partnerships frequently extend the physical travel retail experience into mobile environments.
For retailers, services make it possible to embed content in a browsing routine and place targeted incentives to draw customers to retail locations, resulting in planned buying behaviour in a highly competitive retail environment.
Airport brands need to understand that a holistic service design and specific mobile-based service offers are key differentiators in their overall brand experience, and a very effective marketing and selling tool to drive non-flying revenues.
A stage or a curator?
Most airport retail spaces arrange personalised brand concepts next to each other like a chain of pearls. Indeed, retail managers rarely take an active role in curating the elements that make the overall experience.
As a result, stores compete for attention while the airport brand plays a less visible role. The focus of these efforts is maximising the profitability of each retail space, not on creating an overarching experience.
Times are changing, however, as more airports than ever before are beginning to realise the potential of strengthening their own brands to become more desirable destinations with carefully selected individual experiences.
This new role challenges the authority of world-class brands and demands a more customised, localised approach to each unique retail environment.
As curators, airports need to be venue creators, not just store managers. Today’s consumers no longer depend on stores – they can do just about all of their shopping at the touch of a button.
Retailers need to work even harder to create a unique multi-sensory experience for their customers, and offer something that is unavailable online. This means creating more memorable in-store experiences, communicating a strong point of view, developing captivating environments, and encouraging audiences that are hungry for more.
Purchasing with purpose
Many retailers have successfully moved towards a conscious design and evolution of their merchandise categories. Products and brands are selected based on their fit within a greater theme.
Shoppers return to discover new stories brought to life through dynamic arrangements of products and artifacts. Concept stores reinvent themselves on a regular basis. Digital and interactive interfaces augment the space and become storytelling devices.
In becoming the new “third place” for mobile people to relax, shop, work and be entertained, airports need to meet customer expectations and tell overarching stories.
People want to purchase with purpose: confronted with mind-boggling volumes of information, consumers now expect brands to act as filters and curators.
Indeed, faced with a surplus of choices, consumers tend to engage only with the content and offers that are personally relevant to them.
Today, many people are better acquainted with their screens than their neighbours – and a desire for genuine connections and authentic, meaningful experiences remains.
Brands that understand these needs – for the complex to be simplified, the random to be made relevant, and the impersonal to be made personal – have opportunities to get closer to consumers, play a key role in their lives, and connect in new ways.
As tech innovations continue to dominate the global marketplace, consumers long for a personal touch when it comes to their retail and brand experiences.
Our interpersonal connections greatly influence our perceptions of authenticity. Direct contact with experts, such as craftsmen, producers and artisans can convince us of the quality of a product or service.
Employees who emphasise service and “live the brand” enhance the customer experience and build trust.
While the connection between authenticity and performance may be challenging to quantify, the experience – long with all of the human moments and personal touches that bring it to life – definitely contributes to a brand’s value.
To stay ahead of the curve, retailers will need to provide high levels of personalised service and experiences. They need to not just fulfill, but anticipate the needs and preferences of their customers.
Data is the key – collecting, gaining insights from it and putting these findings to work. In this sense, adopting digitally integrated mechanisms offers a huge potential advantage to retailers.
Airports will take on a new role in people’s lives. Instead of just providing the infrastructure to travel from point A to point B, they are becoming destinations and brands themselves.
Non-aeronautical revenues are an important area of future growth, and the travel retail experience is at the heart of it.
In addition to expecting a variety of world-class retail brands at airports, customers seek a unique travel experience that tells an overarching story, giving purpose to their purchase and connecting with them on a personal level.
Today and in years to come, airports will need to focus more on people’s individual needs, on partners and brands within their environment, and on being a relevant space in the mobile world.