Occupying a space the size of 50 football pitches and with high expectations to meet, Heathrow’s £4 billion Terminal 5 is pulling out all the stops. John Ryan checks out the nearly completed site

To judge by the amount of press that Heathrow’s Terminal 5 has generated, you might be forgiven for thinking that it had opened already and that travellers have been using it for some time. But, in fact, the BA-dedicated terminal’s first flight is not due to take off until the end of March.

Despite this, the£4.3 billion project is more or less complete. On a tour of the site, it is apparent that all that remains is for the shopfitters to finish their work. And, if owner and developer BAA gets its way, T5 will be as much about shopping as flying. From the moment that security is cleared, in that awkward what-now gap before boarding, it will be hard to avoid.

At 220,000 sq ft (4,440 sq m), T5’s retail provision will be bigger than two large department stores. This may not sound remarkable, but in the context of airport retailing, where shops tend to be small, it adds up to a lot of stores and a mix that would put most high streets to shame. Couple this with the fact that Harrods has taken an 18,000 sq ft (1,670 sq m) space and the scale of BAA’s retail ambition becomes clear.

BAA group retail strategy director and T5 retail director Nick Ziebland says that the starting point for the project was “basic space planning many years ago”. After this, the space was divided by category, with operating contracts being awarded to retailers.

On the face of it, this might sound like an unorthodox approach. The normal modus operandi in new shopping centres – for this is what this is – is to produce plans for a scheme and then set about the business of chivvying retailers into taking out leases on the available space. It is a measure of the level of expectation surrounding this particular project that contracts were awarded through negotiation or by competitive tender. Ziebland says: “We invited people to bid to tender for a store and, in doing this, the total retail proposition was considered.”

He adds that one of the issues for BAA is that large numbers of those who use T5 will probably be frequent flyers who come complete with a healthy dose of cynicism about airport retailing in all its forms. “The challenge was always going to be to get people to stay in the airport longer. We felt that just putting more shops in wouldn’t quite do it. There was a need for something more,” says Ziebland.

There is also the matter of commendation. Central to the success of T5 as a retail destination will be its ability to convert shoppers into ambassadors who spread the word about its stores following a trip. “I want people to come early and tell their friends,” explains Ziebland.

Making this a reality has meant coming up with five promises. “Simplify, satisfy, surprise, tempt and respect,” he says. Together, these have informed almost everything that has been done in constructing the retail offer. The mantra has also been used to bring retailers into line when considering how they will present their offer. Ziebland sees it all as a matter of “raising the bar”.

There has been plenty of time for retailers to make their minds up about the physical side of building their stores, because the bulk of the interior detailing was finalised in 2004. Ziebland says that the contracts giving retailers the right to trade have been granted for between three and 10 years and that the length of the term involved is a direct reflection of the capital cost and perceived risk.

As in most new schemes, rents are linked to turnover and the fundamental driver behind the percentage taken by BAA is the margin that can be achieved per category, according to Ziebland. This means that every retailer in T5 has been asked to provide a forecast of the volumes it expects to achieve during its first year of trading. BAA has worked on the basis of tenants achieving at least 70 per cent of the figure provided.

So, what will visitors encounter on a first visit to the terminal, which is considerably bigger than most airports?

The retail centrepiece

When the men with repel-all-boarders stares have inspected passports and the traveller makes the transition to airside, the vista will change abruptly. Almost the first thing on view is Harrods. And this is not the department store’s familiar airport retailing face in which tartan rugs, teddy bears and branded bags loom large. Instead, the outbound traveller is confronted with a very large white space with the Harrods logo picked out in white light.

Inside, there are two 35ft-wide (10m) domes festooned with lights that can be programmed to form patterns on the walls or even logos for promotions. All in all, Harrods has pulled out all the stops and created a show-stopping store that is quite unlike anything it has done before.

This is the centrepiece of the retail proposition at T5, but it is only one of 112 shops and eateries spread over two floors. There is a distinct skew to the way in which these have been arranged, with the luxury goods retailers clustered in one area and the more grab-and-go, family-oriented offers in another.

Much of what is on view will be familiar. There are the usual multiple iterations of WHSmith, which has four branches, two Dixons, a PC World, a Boots and an enormous World Duty Free located on the lower level, directly beneath Harrods. World Duty Free is still some way from completion, but Ziebland says that, among a number of features, there will be a “gigantic bead curtain” onto which images of products and promotions will be projected.

He says that, in the quest for difference, a number of the retailers are assembling offers and store designs that will be unique to the airport. He highlights Paul Smith and Ted Baker as examples. At the latter, a large, rural graphic emphasises the Britishness of its offer, a trait mirrored in Paul Smith. There are also a significant number of luxury retailers – think Italian and very upscale – that are making T5 their first foray into airport retailing, Prada among them.

And, if the shopping proves too much, there is a large Gordon Ramsay restaurant where travellers can dine in style before take-off. Tables here can be booked ahead of check-in, but a number are reserved for those wishing to eat on a whim. Ziebland says that one of the tasks set by BAA for Gordon Ramsay was to design a menu that could be ordered, served and eaten within an hour, but which would not compromise on the quality for which the foul-mouthed chef is best known.

Meanwhile, for the “weepers and wailers” – those left landside as loved ones head off – Ziebland says that “the retail is going to be relatively modest”. He explains: “The strategy is to encourage people to go to the airport departure lounge.” He admits that the sorry few who are not heading off also need looking after, so there are a number of catering options, including Lovejuice and a café.

Ziebland says that all retailers will be monitored closely and performance will be reviewed regularly. While this may sound a little like Big Brother, he is optimistic that there will be little, if any, need for remodelling the retail mix in the first year of operation.

And now a few statistics – something that BAA is very keen on. T5 occupies an area equivalent to 50 football pitches or 643 acres (260ha). The main building is 1,310ft (400m) long and there will be two subsidiary terminals T5(b) and T5(c), set to open late next year and in 2011 respectively. Each of these will be as big as Terminal 4. It is also worth mentioning that, at 575ft (176m), the single-span roof is the largest of its kind in the UK.

BAA anticipates that 35 million passengers will pass through T5’s doors in its first year of operation, ferried to and from the building by coach, rail or car. Given these numbers, it is hardly surprising that not only has T5 been a while in the making, but it is also required to trump any other airport retail offer in the country.

If all goes to plan, it will almost be worth a visit just for the shopping – except that existing rules regarding travel will confine that privilege to the A, B and C1s that BAA expects to comprise the great bulk of its visitors.