March 3, 2021

The Airport Experience Now Includes Shopping for the Family

After visits to malls plummeted during the recession — and have yet to bounce back — many mass-market retailers stepped up their search for other locations to lure shoppers.

Places where people might be bored. And unable to leave. One time-tested answer: airports.

While luxury stores set up shops in airports long ago to attract duty-free international shoppers, retailing in many domestic terminals was limited to newsstands and the occasional shop selling coffee mugs and local smoked meat. The real diversity in airport shopping was in the food concessions.

No more.

“Airports are becoming, really, a service facility, like a shopping mall,” said Jose Gomez, senior vice president for business development for Mango, the fashion retailer.

While clothing and specialty luggage and electronics stores aimed at male shoppers — like Johnston Murphy, Brooks Brothers and Brookstone — have been fixtures at airports, the new wave of stores moves beyond the businessman traveler to include teenagers, women and bargain shoppers.

Mango recently opened two stores at San Francisco International Airport. It will open one in the Orlando airport this fall and plans more airport locations in the next two years. Victoria’s Secret opened seven airport stores in 2010 and 2011.

Muji, a Japanese housewares and apparel store, has opened two airport locations, and Sean John, the clothing line by Sean Combs, a k a Diddy or P. Diddy, has a store in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has grown from “news and gift and generic concepts” to “almost complete retail diversity” over the last 10 years, said Paul Brown, director of concessions at the airport.

Even Brooks Brothers — which was one of the first clothing stores to expand into airports, opening its first airport store in 1999 — is riding the wave, with plans to add about five stores a year to the 26 it already has in the United States. And overseas, the fashion retailers HM and Zara have each opened several airport stores.

The draw of the airport location is simple: an attentive clientele. “After security, you’re locked up,” Mr. Gomez of Mango said.

Domestic travelers spend more than an hour, on average, waiting in airports once they have passed security, said Gerry Cecci, vice president for airport management at the Westfield Group the mall company, which manages retail sites at airports including Boston, Newark and Miami.

“Someone may have a street concept or a mall concept that’s very successful, and bringing it to the airport environment, you capitalize on the captive audience and on the dwell time,” Mr. Cecci said.

Retailers say that while rents are higher at airports than in mall or street locations, sales per square foot are also higher — especially when it is raining or snowing and flights are delayed.

“We have a motto — bad weather is good for business,” said Paulette Garafalo, president for wholesale, international and marketing at Brooks Brothers. “Whenever there’s bad weather, we enjoy a hearty day. It’s the polar opposite of retail here.”

Making money in retailing at the airport, though, requires some adjustments to the traditional sales model. Stores are smaller, and the customers are often rushed, or at least very time-conscious. A premium is placed on convenience.

“Though there is a dressing room where you can try on dresses, maybe people are not so much inclined to try on, because they don’t have a lot of time,” Mr. Gomez of Mango said. “So accessories and tops sell better.”

Retailers also have to alter the layout of stores. Aisles have to be wide enough for luggage, and the pristine storefront displays used in malls often have to be tossed aside in favor of more open concepts and the stacking of merchandise at the store’s entrance.

“They figure out that removing the plate window glass and opening up is turning out to be a great idea,” said Mr. Brown of the Atlanta airport.

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