The opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 was a high-profile fiasco, but its retail offer will give passengers something to smile about. John Ryan takes a look at a new era of airport retailing

It would be difficult to imagine a more catastrophic start to a commercial enterprise than that suffered by Heathrow’s Terminal 5 when it opened a couple of weeks ago. “Shambles”, “chaos” and “foul-up” were just some of the words used in the press to describe what was going on when a state-of the-art baggage system failed to work as planned and flight after BA flight failed to get away from the departure gates.

There was, of course, an inevitable amount of cynicism in circulation well before any of this happened. Some said that the£4.3 billion project was not much more than a shopping mall from which a few flights could be accessed when an appropriate amount of money had been spent. A harsh description? Quite possibly, but in a visit last week, the positives certainly appeared to outweigh the negatives, if shopping was what travellers might have had in mind.

Mark Aldridge, a spokesman for BAA, the company that runs and owns T5, says that the mantra when putting the retail offer together was that it should be “on the way, not in the way”. Practically, this means that the first impression of any visitor making it through immigration and security is one of space rather than shops.

Yet, still, there will be those who suspect they are on the verge of entering an enormous international shopping centre and, yes, there are a lot of shops and catering outlets – more than 100 – set over two levels. But there is no sense that you have strayed into a more up-to-date version of Bluewater, Lakeside or even Birmingham’s Bullring.

For a start, with a couple of exceptions, the stores are small and, as Aldridge points out, this means that travellers are confronted by an edited version of our high streets and better shopping centres. So far, so predictable and absolutely in line with airport retailing best practice. Success in this arena is about sales per square foot, which have to be exponentially higher than those generated by high street stores. This means that the space has to be sweated if it is to work.

This might lead to the presumption that every available fixture would be jam-packed and that there would be little room to move. Yet all the retailers that have signed for space at T5 appear to have taken the view that volume sales – even at the lower end of the price spectrum – do not have to mean unattractive environments.

Whether it’s a magazine, a tube of haemorrhoid cream from Boots or perhaps a designer shirt from Paul Smith that shoppers want, the majority of those passing through the terminal seem destined to spend at least some of their time in the shops. And, when the shopping begins, the observant will also notice that, apart from the size of the units, things are subtly different from the high street in other departments too.

In this respect, DSGi has adapted rather more than most. The electricals group has put three new fascias into the main terminal and a further branch of Dixons into the satellite Terminal 5B that is intended to service long-haul passengers. For the bulk of shoppers passing through the main terminal, therefore, a branch of Dixons, a PC World and a new accessories format called Dixons + add will be encountered, depending on the route taken.

All three have been designed by Fitch and the Dixons store bears little resemblance to what most will be familiar with from the retailer’s days. In its place is a slick-looking fascia, with the logo picked out from the red background in a skinny white font. Within the open-sided space, the first thing that is immediately apparent is that everything in the shop can be seen at a single sweep.

The fixturing is low and white, with red highlights around its edges. The products that sit on the units are at waist level and are intended to make the environment more user-friendly than most shops of this kind. Around the perimeter, a burgundy strip provides the background for white navigational graphics, which ensure that even if you miss a merchandise category initially, there is little chance of it being overlooked.

A few doors along, the Dixons + add store has a footplate about a third of the size of the main store and a logo that tells you what is inside at a glance. The fascia announces “Photography”, “Entertainment”, “Computing” and “Travel” with the plus sign above icons associated with each of these words. Shoppers are left in little doubt about what to expect and, once inside the store, the same logic has been applied as in the main branch to create a perimeter navigation aid, albeit one that uses a different colour scheme.

Both Dixons + add and the main Dixons shop are on the airport’s upper level. PC World is downstairs. In common with the Dixons store, the PC World shopfront has an inbuilt digital display, which is distinctly un-bling – so much so that you could almost be looking at a poster, until it changes its content from time to time. One of the displayed messages reads: “You’ll be surprised. this is no normal PC World store. we’ve selected the best products for when you travel. why not come and see for yourself.” The woeful lack of grammatical nous notwithstanding, the shop does what it says on the digital display.

Inside, you can indeed buy a laptop, but not a computer, and there are lots of devices aimed at helping travellers connect to the internet while on the move. Pride of place, however, is given to the MacBook Air, the “world’s thinnest notebook”, apparently. This is displayed at the entrance to the shop and can then be test-driven in an area at the back that functions as a mini-Apple store.

For those not interested in technology, Terminal 5 boasts a lot of other options, among them Harrods and a swish version of the World Duty Free format that visitors to most UK airports will recognise.

The former is also the handiwork of Fitch and has much to commend it from a design perspective. Located on the terminal’s upper level, it features two overhead LED light-studded domes, intended to take shoppers “into a different space”, according to Harrods managing director Michael Ward. There is also a jeans bar and a large collection of mens- and womenswear. The two departments are split by a slice of the World Duty Free area, which also sits within the canopied space. However, they remain connected by the cash desk, which has an LED Harrods logo at the rear.

There is a clean, high-gloss whiteness to the equipment that has been used by Harrods, which is quite at odds with what you might normally expect from an outpost of the Knightsbridge emporium. Ward says: “There was a need to make sure that the store was in keeping with the terminal itself.”

World-class retail

If shoppers don’t find what they’re looking for among Harrods’ cruisewear or smart-casual menswear offer, the chances are high that they will find themselves in the two-floor World Duty Free, designed by JHP Design.

As well as providing the usual haven for the fags, booze and chocs brigade, you can also buy designer sunglasses, displayed on white, backlit fixtures, into which sunglass-sized niches have been carved. Watches, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, a funky beauty offer, World of Whisky and Fortnum & Mason all form additional elements of this mini-department store, which is set off from the rest of the floor on its lower level by a shiny black floor with glittering reflective specks. Mention should also be made of the lighting rafts overhead, which lend a variegated appearance to the ceiling.

Ceiling rafts also feature in the Sony Style store, this time made from wood. As the first of its kind in Europe, this is a store where grown men, predominantly, will come to admire novelties such as dancing mp3 players and ultra-thin digital screens, contained within an environment that pays homage to the vogue for natural materials.

And, if the shopper still hasn’t found what they want, there is a huge fashion offer, with players such as Prada, Bulgari, Mulberry, Ted Baker and Paul Smith all waiting to be visited.

Unexpectedly, the Prada store is probably the least exciting-looking shop in the entire terminal. There will be little doubt that the materials used have been costly, but when compared with the curving walls of the Bulgari store, the metal Mulberry tree, the Mappin & Webb waterfall or the Chatsworth House-inspired interior of the Paul Smith shop, it appears dull. Even the more workaday offers, such as the new, lower-impact WHSmith fascia or the two Hughes & Hughes bookshops, are more eye-catching.

But when the dust has settled and all the missing bags that were shipped to Milan are reunited with their owners, the question for BAA has to be whether the mix will prove enticing for shoppers. The retailers that have taken space in the development have thrown plenty of cash at the project and the outcome, in almost every case, is impressive. If only the baggage-handling system had proved equally noteworthy, the terminal really would be firing on all cylinders.