There is something about airport terminals that makes people behave completely out of character.

There is something about airport terminals that makes people behave completely out of character. Having passed through a few recently, the look of frenzy in people’s eyes as they head for the duty free and other stores – not to mention the bars at ungodly hours of the  morning – never ceases to amaze. It’s not a look many retailers have seen for a while in the high street.

Retailing at Britain’s airports is world-class. As the London Olympics finally begins and the country welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors (on top of the other hundreds of thousands of tourists), it is probably true to say that there are no concerns about whether Heathrow and Gatwick will be up to the retail task. There may be concerns about olympic passport control, security, transport and even the weather, but for all those visitors passing in and out of the terminal lounges, they should be guaranteed a great retail experience.

Take Heathrow Terminal 5 for example. Despite its early teething problems caused by the baggage handling, it is now established as an outstanding shopping centre that happens to have planes. Ask any number of retailers which are their best performing stores across their whole chain and many will cite an airport branch and often Terminal 5.

And that is true for everything, from a luxury brand to a food chain and all points in between. Year after year, WHSmith has been able to report rising sales in its travel division and unsurprisingly is looking to expand further.

So what is it about airports that makes people spend there when they clearly aren’t elsewhere? There has to be something in the fact that people feel good about travelling, are excited about a trip and are therefore happy to lose their inhibitions about splashing out on gifts for themselves or others.

And then there is the fact that retailers have done a great job of knowing what airport customers want and, in an increasing number of cases, in great-looking stores. As that US retail legend, Marvin Traub, who sadly died earlier this month always said, retail is about theatre and that is what airport retailing can deliver.

  • Ian McGarrigle, Director, World Retail Congress