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RETAIL/F&B Last modified on May 17, 2010

Remembering retail

Shopping is now so fundamental to the passenger experience that its importance must be remembered when designing airport terminals, writes Robbie Gill.

Do you know a woman that needs another handbag?” Understand that and you are well on the way to some very exciting retail thinking, and design for it is about getting that lady to within three metres of that handbag display. Get close to the brand and you are close to the product.

In airports, whether it is retail or food & beverage (F&B), brand is everything and yet so many commercial offers in passenger terminals are missing the importance of this powerful tool and therefore, good design.

All too often this essential commercial offer is far too formulaic and bland in the extreme, such as the monotonous row of glass boxes that can be found at one well-known Spanish gateway. The only difference between them is the products on offer inside.

Retailers and their F&B counterparts should be stars of the stage, not part of the stage. Yet history has dictated that every shop front is the same with the possible exception of a different typeface on the exterior.

How has this come about? There was a time when the airport architect controlled everything – the exterior shell and the interior commercial space, hence it all becoming rather common and very boring for the passenger and not very lucrative for the airport either. This was really the worst-case scenario.

Another way forward, a kind of middle ground if you like, is where the airport controls everything, overt control and everything to a standard. The SkyPlaza at Hong Kong International Airport is a good example of this approach.

It is big, has everything, but is, in my opinion, rather ‘ordinary’ from a passenger’s perspective. And by ‘ordinary’, I mean I believe that it lacks commercial stimulation.

Come right up-to-date where master planning, brand positioning, shop design and commercial thinking have all come together in harmony, and you have the very exciting Heathrow Terminal 5 retail and F&B showcase.

It is exciting for the passengers, brands are well placed for the clientele in a particular part of the terminal and the brands are centre stage.

How do you create such a wonderful airport offer? There are two key elements to the process and they are ‘quality’ and ‘diversity’, and it is essential that all parties involved in creating such an environment understand how they will bring their in-put to the party.

At the first stage it is important to create a framework for both the retailers and their own design teams. This can be a tricky element as personalities are involved. It is not a battle between the retailer’s designers and the airport’s interior architects; it is for the architects to inspire the designers to use the airport as a new opportunity to create something really exciting away from the high street.

It is not a blank canvas because the design must answer some important necessities. Two-dimensional communications, the electrics and other key pieces of the design jigsaw are differentfrom a high street store, so these need to be explained to them and the best way of doing that is in face to face meetings where everything can be explained and resolved efficiently. Everybody is clear as to the aspirations for that brand.

How The Design Solution works is to inspire best design practice and to show both the retailer and the designer that this can be done in many ways. We explain that there are some key areas such as signage, where there might be some restrictions such as height and size, but even here these restrictions are becoming less than they were five or ten years ago.



Lighting is another area that needs to be considered as it is an airport. Materials are also very important as these shops, bars and restaurants will be open for longer on a daily basis than the high street so they will be subject to more wear and tear. Displays and visual merchandising are another critical area the designers need to think about.

We produce a manual for all potential clients that, in our opinion, shows great examples of how all these pieces can be put together to produce a very passenger inspiring result.

The whole process is not a simple one for there is a lot at stake for everyone. What we do, and this has proved both effective and therefore important, is to allow an informal submission first. This has a two-fold benefit in that the design concept fee is not exhausted and the general design direction can be discussed without friction.

We can produce quick design sketches if needed to show how a brand can enhance their design. This ‘informal submission’ stage also negates the need for last minute changes which can cause delay and that is not productive in an airport situation.

This is a very pro-active way of ensuring that the airport has the very best design endeavour, and therefore passenger stimulation.

As previously mentioned, materials specified in the design are important. There are some key materials that are always used, such as glass, wood, metal and stone, also now some ‘new-age’ materials that can be specified.

Material specification is important for more than just longevity, it is also away of differentiating a brand or shop from another next door or opposite. It is therefore important to have a very extensive material palette for all commercial offers and this is becoming a much broader choice year on year which is yet another design tool for the brand.

All this is about creating an exciting commercial offer for passengers at the airport. There is still much work to do and rows of glass boxes will not be the answer.

A passenger now has to spend two hours at the airport being ‘processed’, so it is important to offer excitement to counterbalance the negativity of security and encourage them to spend money.

It sounds easy, doesn’t it, but the facts say otherwise as today some 75% of passengers do not spend above a coffee and newspaper. And, of those that do, 50% of them have pre-planned their retail needs and none of this figure will be in speciality retail!

It is, therefore, critical that brands are individual and grab people’s attention. Market research tells us that when passengers make a ‘whim’ purchase they often spend a lot more than anything pre-planned.

The high street is proof that people like to spend on retail and F&B. In fact, in these hard pressed times it has been the top-end brands that have been able to weather the storm.

Retail therapy is a global pastime. What airports must ensure is that the commercial offer is as diverse as the passenger profile will allow and that the design is different from the high street. It is a golden opportunity to design and create something truly spectacular.


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