The weird but wonderful world of travel retail


Alex Palmer from Haygarth explores the far-from-normal retail experience in major airports and what shoppers are looking for when travelling.

Between packing your bags and jetting off on your summer holidays, you’ll no doubt pass through one of the vast shopping areas found in major airports. It’s a retail experience like no other – where else would you order a pint at 6am, grab £100 sunglasses on a whim, panic-buy a dangerously big bag of sweets for the office or pay twice the high street price for a bottle of water without a second thought? Also… luggage shops. Who’s buying luggage at the airport?!

It’s certainly a far cry from the normal weekly shop or a trip down the high street. But away from the idiosyncrasies, there are some strong fundamental principles of retail in play that tap into a totally different shopper mindset and set of behaviours. Which is little wonder when you consider that the value of the travel retail sector is estimated to be £50bn, rising to £90bn (M1ndset report, 2017) – clearly it’s doing something right.

You only have to look at WHSmith to see this in effect. While it was recently voted ‘the worst high street retailer’ (Which? Survey 2018), with trade down 5%, its same figures in travel retail saw a rise of 7%. Without the threat of Amazon looming over it, and with a captive audience of shoppers keen to bag some holiday reading, plane snacks and a bottle of water to replace the one they had to hand in at security, the store is a finely-tuned retail machine. If good shopper and retail marketing is about keeping it simple, WHSmith excels here. Its stores are well-placed, key product categories (newspapers, books, drinks and confectionary) are well-positioned to maximise impulse purchase, stock is managed efficiently (from a merchandising and replenishment perspective) and unlike the high street equivalent, the till area is well-staffed. In other words, it’s optimised for shoppers who want to get in, get what they want and get out without having to Usain Bolt it to their gate.

At the other end of the spectrum, away from holiday ‘commodities’, there are other interesting observations in luxury/premium goods. This area is less focused on fast-paced, impulse shopping and more about considered purchase, often where the shopper is not the end consumer. Because of this, retailers and brands set out their stall in a completely different way, with service and experience playing a more heightened role.

For spirits and cosmetics in particular, travel retail exclusives, gifts with purchase and premium sampling are really effective ways of engaging shoppers in a ‘must-buy’ opportunity. Jack Daniel’s’ ‘Bottled in Bond’ is a great example of an exclusive premium SKU developed specifically for travel retail to increase desirability for whiskey lovers (and/or gifters). Likewise, cosmetics giant Estée Lauder has achieved huge growth in travel retail through a combination of exclusive sets and scents and beautifully designed stores with attentive service. For the modern, savvy shopper, both examples offer increased value over and above price/discounting. Of course, it’s also a big help when the layout of the airport (such as Gatwick) creates a deliberate flow of customers right past your retail space.

Both Jack Daniel’s and Estée Lauder have demonstrated an understanding of how shoppers think, feel and behave in the travel retail environment – tailoring their offering to a broad range of travellers, with a broad range of motivations and needs. From the business executive passing through for the 5th time that month, looking to pick up a gift for their partner, to the excitable family on their first holiday of the year with some money to spend on travel accessories; the opportunity for brands and retailers is to understand these behavioural differences and deliver the right product, in the right way, at the right time. With a guaranteed high shopper footfall passing through everyday, it’s too big an opportunity to miss.

Alex Palmer is an Account Director at Haygarth, an award-winning creative agency that create powerful brand and retail ideas that amaze and persuade people to buy.