Items Fly Off the Shelves at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

Like many busy "malls," the airport is drawing more tenants. This year it's in the midst of an expansion that will add 10 stores and four restaurants.


May 7--Perhaps you need some golf balls, an Oxford cloth shirt, a DVD player, a pair of shoes or a copy of "Where the Wild Things Are." Where could you get them while grabbing a bite to eat at Subway, Starbucks, the French Meadow Bakery or one of some 50 other eateries?

At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Like airports that attract millions of passengers a year around the country, MSP International is an increasingly popular spot to eat, drink and shop. Airports give merchants a great shot at reaching some of the most deep-pocketed consumers.

"They have nothing but time -- and gold cards in their wallets," said Joe Anderson, who oversees retail concessions at Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

Like many busy "malls," the airport is drawing more tenants. This year it's in the midst of an expansion that will add 10 stores and four restaurants.

When the expansion is completed by the end of the year, the airport will have some 125,000 square feet of space devoted to eating, drinking and shopping. That's about half the size of City Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Travelers spent about $128 million in 2005 at the airport's restaurants and shops.

Trained to arrive early to clear security checkpoints, travelers are spending more time waiting in airports for their flights to depart. And passengers switching planes at hub airports often have an hour or more to kill.

At MSP, departing passengers typically have 15 to 90 minutes of what the industry calls "dwell time," Anderson said, and the airport wants to make their waits as pleasant and entertaining as possible.

It pays off for the airport, after all.

The airport gets a percentage of sales from companies leasing retail and restaurant space. Last year, MSP International's cut from that business was about $19.8 million, or about 10 percent of its annual operating revenue.

Gone are the days when airports pretty much just offered newsstands and snack bars that gouged travelers.

These days, most airports -- including MSP -- require merchants to provide "street pricing," meaning prices paid inside the airport must be the same as those paid elsewhere.

"But I still think people keep their wallets closed because they think we're overpriced," Anderson said.

The airport also leans on vendors to improve customer service.

"We made Caribou put in three $20,000 espresso machines," said Anderson, explaining the airport thought customers were waiting in line too long to get their java.

TAKING OFF

Increasingly, airports are home to the restaurants that travelers see constantly in the outside world, such as McDonald's and Starbucks. They're also seeing familiar retail brands, such as Select Comfort and Lands' End.

And they're encountering specialty retailers they'll rarely, if ever, find outside airports.

"The selection, number of stores and professionalism of the retailers and food operators continues to evolve and get better," said Patrick Gleason, vice president of SH&E/CAM, a consulting firm that advises airports about concession operations. "More retailers are entering the business. … And the expectations of passengers are getting higher."

The old "monopolistic" model started to change 15 to 20 years ago, as airports saw the opportunity to profit by providing a wider selection of restaurants and shops.

The Pittsburgh airport, which opened in 1992, became an industry role model. It boasts more than 100 shops and restaurants.

"It was designed as a blend of a shopping mall and airport," said Anderson. "All the normal mall experiences were built in."

At this point, some 18 million passengers fly out of MSP annually. With that much traffic, airport officials estimate it could support another 50,000 square feet or so of retail and restaurants.

In growing the airport's food and retail options, the Metropolitan Airports Commission strove to ensure a strong Minnesota flavor.

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