Airport shopping: Come buy with me

Airports were once glamorous destinations. Now a new terminal at Heathrow packed with high-end boutiques is the latest attempt to recapture that lost spirit, says Simon Calder

In a gentler age, before terrorists made aviation their preferred arena, Britain's leading airports were tourist attractions.

As Heathrow and Gatwick grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, they promised a brave new world of global connectivity – and provided somewhere for a family day out. Probably more people came to gaze upon the destination boards, with the exotic promise of Biarritz, Baghdad or New York, than ever actually flew.

Anyone excluded from foreign travel by the outlandish fares then charged by the airlines could nonetheless mingle with the rich and famous, sipping tea at Fortes 24-hour Bar and Buffet and dreaming of foreign airfields. Day-trippers were denied access only to the inner sanctum beyond passport control, where departing passengers could buy a bottle of gin for 14 shillings from Fortes Duty-Free Liquor Shop.

Half a century on, air travel has become democratised. We are (almost) all passengers now. Airports in the London area alone will handle 140 million travellers this year, making it the world's leading aviation gateway. But modern airports are like prisons and hospitals: most people would prefer to avoid them altogether, and, once inside, want to get out as fast as possible. An airport is just an uncomfortable, undignified means to an end.

Or is it?

Since Heathrow and Gatwick became rivals five years ago with the break-up of BAA, tens of millions of pounds have been invested in new shops to boost the pre-flight offering. At the same time, retailers recognise that a location adjacent to a runway at a London airport is the fastest way to reach a global audience.

For practitioners of the retail arts, there are many challenges. Passengers are typically tired and stressed after the trip to the airport, whether that involves the M4, the Piccadilly Line from central London or a long-haul flight from Mumbai. They may be fixated on a single "distress" purchase: Boots is always front of house for last-minute personal needs, while among the fastest-moving lines at Dixons are connectors and chargers for tablets and telephones. (Incidentally the Dixons brand, first seen "airside" at Heathrow 20 years ago, has long disappeared from the High Street but lives on in Britain's airports.)

But airport merchants also enjoy advantages. The typical passenger is happy to spend freely before they step aboard and fly somewhere exciting (or home to Ohio), because shopping is an alluring way to kill time. They have probably allowed plenty of time to reach the airport; when they find motorways unblocked and the security search painless, they become people with plenty of "dwell time" on their hands. Passengers can't wander back to the car or the bus stop when they've had enough. The only way out is on an airliner. Add in the travellers who need to buy presents for family and friends and will pay whatever it takes to assuage the conscience, and it's no surprise that seven out of 10 Heathrow passengers buy something (a larger proportion than use the loos).

"When people are here they are in a very different mind-set," says Max Vialou-Clark. He is Heathrow's retail services director, and as such has to cater for the most diverse range of shoppers in the world.

"They want an experience, places that entertain and amuse them and they're prepared to upgrade." That explains the long-standing presence at Heathrow of premier-league brands such as Harrods. But when the new Terminal 2 opens in June, the average British traveller may be surprised by the familiarity of the retail offering.

John Lewis has never knowingly opened a small shop, nor a store at an airport. At "T2" the partnership will be doing both. The Heathrow outlet will be one-tenth the size of its smallest existing department store in Exeter. The main target is not the British traveller who needs to run one last retail errand on home turf before encountering those funny foreign shops, but international passengers. "Even if I'm only a connecting passenger – I want to feel as though I'm in Britain," says Max. At T2, 40 per cent of the shops will be British brands, such as Cath Kidston, as opposed to international labels; at Terminal 5 the proportion is 25 per cent.

The average shopper at Heathrow spends £39, which adds up to £1.8bn in a year. The airport benefits from the fact that most of its passengers are flying long haul. Not only do nationalities such as the Japanese, Brazilians and Chinese have a higher propensity to spend than do Europeans – they also typically allow a lot more time before their flight.

Gatwick does less well from shoppers, who are predominantly heading for destinations in Europe. Research at the Sussex airport says travellers are demanding "a more premium and stronger mainstream offering of both national and international brands". And what does that mean? New shops including Ted Baker and the largest Zara airport store on the planet.

Spencer Sheen, who is head of retail at Gatwick, claims the £40m project "takes airport shopping experience to a whole new level."

A new arrival at the departure lounge is Snow+Rock, bringing outdoor gear such as The North Face to the South Terminal. The firm's marketing director, Kevin Young, says: "We look forward to realising the potential of a tightly focused product range." Loosely translated, that means you'll find lots of jackets but not the kit for a Himalayan expedition. This is partly because profits per square foot are higher for clothing, but also because Swiss Army knives and ice axes would not get through security. Anything sold "airside" at an airport, from a copy of the Independent paper to a bottle of Smirnoff Gold complete with real gold flakes, has to be screened just as passengers are.

An airport so good you won't want to take off: that is the hope of both Heathrow and Gatwick. But Max Vialou-Clark says he will understand if you bypass the retail opportunities and go straight to the gate: "There's a single primary reason that you're here and it's not shopping. You and everyone here is boarding an aircraft."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Day In a Page

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory