Retail, Driven by the Customer

Jan. 2, 2008
Changing demands and expectations offer opportunity, and revenue, for airports.

CHICAGO — The 2007 Airport Concessions Conference put on by Airports Council International - North America here in November
covered a lot of ground, but the main point was clear: upgrade the customer experience. Expectations are high, with consumers demanding variety, healthy options, and an eye on environmental and ethical concerns. The good news is, the current food and retail trends are conducive to airport concessions.

“Our world of concession and business development has changed tremendously in the last decade,” says Shauna Forsythe, president of Alliance Airport Advertising. “Our airports look nothing like they did ten years ago.”

Forsythe notes that the experience of an airport has changed dramatically. She says that the average passenger now spends 108 minutes at the airport, more than double the time spent just a decade ago. That extra time is affecting what they’re looking for in concessions.

“Today we cater to travelers who, very sadly, have resigned themselves to being stuck,” Forsythe says.

“Passengers relish finding entertainment or ways to ... make that time useful while they’re in the airport waiting for a flight.”
According to Mark Erickson, vice president of continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), consumers’ expectations are on the rise.

“Americans are becoming very demanding about their experience, whether it be a shopping experience or airport experience,” says Erickson. “Socioeconomics have changed the way the American family has done things and certainly has changed the way that people dine.”

Larry Levy, founder and chairman of Levy Restaurants, agrees. “Don’t just go for the money,“ Levy advises. “Customer experience is a big deal.”

Around-the-world cuisine
One of the newest demands coming along, Erickson says, is for more variety and interesting flavors. Three different kinds of national hamburger chains, panelists note, doesn’t count.

Erickson says that an increase in international travel, as well as an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America to the United States is driving the American palate.

“The world’s becoming an increasingly small place.

“I can’t tell you, as a chef, how frightening it is to have been trained in classical methods back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and to watch how quickly the world of food has changed,” Erickson says.

“What was once a palate here in America that was dominated by French food or certainly northern European food has become world flavors.”
Erickson notes that things like butter and ‘gourmet’ are being replaced with olive oil and a quest for ‘authentic’ foods. The good news for airports, he says, is that many of these international cuisines have a rich history of street foods.

“Take a look at these foods from around the globe — they are exciting flavors, they are exciting presentations, and they are the kinds of things that can be prepared in an environment where a customer doesn’t have a lot of time to wait.”

“All of these different parts of the world have this tremendous culture of what we call street foods, where people are passing along on the street might stop at a very simple stall and pick something up nosh on as they go on to whatever it is they’re going to go do — and in your case, it might be going to the next flight.”

“The ability to capture some of the flavors that go on in these street food cultures down the road are very, very exciting. I’m recommending looking for concepts, look for the people that bring those kinds of things to airports as a way to bring a little liveliness to the airport dining experience.”

Levy agrees that this international trend is growing. “I contend that Americans have the highest palate of cuisine of anybody because we are a country of immigrants. We have the food of every nationality in our country.” Levy says. “In Chicago, we have more Thai restaurants than they do in Bangkok.”

Levy says this trend in the United States makes it a global leader in the arena of food. Airports should particularly take note of the American wine industry.

“The airports that are starting wine bars and the sophisticated-but-simple food that goes with it, to me, that really belongs in airports,” Levy says. “Again, the style fits in well with the airport environment, while upgrading customer experience.”

“You open a bottle, you pour the wine out,” Levy says. “Somebody else has already done all the hard work of making a great product. You can have custom experiences in airports. You can create menus that are labor efficient, that a lot of the work is done before the customer gets there. You assemble it quickly or you prepare it.”

Some restaurants are already following this labor-efficient model. “What Wolfgang Puck is doing is fabulous — picking great ingredients that are preassembled,” Levy says.

He notes that the localization trend in airports, bringing the local flavors to airport passengers, continues. “It adds an advertising message about the city, it really upgrades the customer experience, and I think that’s a great lesson to take away from it,” Levy says.

Comfort food
Another trend, comments Erickson with CIA, is that customers want to be able to feel good — righteous, even — about their food choices. That means giving customers socially and ethically sound choices, as well as healthy options.

“We’ve been trying to deliver healthier meals in restaurants for 25, 30 years, and quite frankly it hasn’t really worked out all that well,” Erickson says.

One challenge is that the health food landscape is constantly changing. What was once diet, Erickson notes, is now about lifestyle. Research can be misleading, he says, and the media plays to customers’ desire for easy answers.

Trends have moved from a pursuit of low fat to low carb, like the Atkins diet. The new craze Erickson sees on the horizon is the glycemic index, a measurement of how foods affect blood glucose and how quickly they’re digested.

The other challenge, Erickson says, is that customers aren’t willing to sacrifice that much for health. “They’re not looking to deprive themselves of flavor just because it’s healthier,” Erickson says. “That formula will not work for customers.”

Lee Kane, ecoCzar for Whole Foods Market, North Atlantic Region, says organics are another food trend airport passengers care about.
Overall, Kane says airports don’t currently show much evidence of “green consciousness”. He says the airport passenger is more inclined to care about green and organic products, so there are opportunities for airports to capitalize on the trend.

Kane also says air travel would benefit from becoming “more a part of normal life, rather than a disconnect from normal life.

“Most people don’t want to have to put their regular lifestyle choices on hold just because they are traveling.”

He says some popular items at Whole Foods could potentially find a strong market at airports as well. Sliced and packaged organic apples, for example, are a huge seller at Whole Foods, and could be quite popular for health-conscious passengers on the run. Individual-sized packages of hummus and crackers or carrots and dip are other examples.

“These are items that I think are quick grab and go,” Kane says. “They’re very family friendly, they’re very kid friendly and the customers see those kinds of things, they’re going to make those selections — and be happy to make them.

There is even a natural fast food concept, O’Naturals, that he says may be a good fit for airports.

To market, to market
Panelists say the green trend has expanded to include every aspect of marketing — and is where the focus of marketing belongs, at least in part.
Comments Patrice Dermody, executive vice president of worldwide marketing agency Leo Burnett, says. “It’s all about fitness, better health, organic. Jump on that.” Ten Minute Manicure is one example, Dermody says. Expanding on that concept, she envisions one-minute full-body massages, or an abbreviated airport version of Curves.

Dermody says filling the void and thinking strategically is also crucial to concessions success. She uses the example of flu shots, recently made available at O’Hare International Airport. “Very timely, very topical,” Dermody says. “This is a terrific way to provide service to your customers.”
Another trend, Dermody notes, is the onset of automation and vending. Case in point: the Apple and Motorola automated retail stores by Zoom systems took first place for best new retail concept in North America at the conference. It’s all about maximizing space.

Dermody says children’s play areas are outdated. Kids today are technologically savvy, and would be just as happy with computer games.
“We need to move forward,” Dermody says. “It’s real estate that could probably be monetized in a different way.”

Branded demand
Despite the airport trend of localized shops and restaurants, getting the right national brands is still critical to success.

“Customers are really expressing a desire for brand-name products and services,” says Sally Hertz, vice president for Jones Lang LaSalle.

Paul McGinn, president of MarketPlace Development, says the reasons for this are many. Brands offer customers:

  • instant recognition
  • consumer comfort
  • consistency, and
  • program credibility.

However, attracting brands can be challenging at times. “Not all brands want [airports],” McGinn says. “That’s frequently a tough realization for an airport to make.”

McGinn says the airport cons for some brands are all too familiar: the limited space size; difficult leasing and development process; and operating complexities. And some brands just don’t have airports in their business plan.

However, McGinn notes that there are many upsides to airport concessions for brands — high traffic, exposure to core customers, high visibility, captive customers, and predictable buying patterns.

To attract brands, McGinn says, airports might want to consider developing their own brand strategy — and altering that strategy depending on the business plan currently surrounding the brand.

For example, McGinn says using a direct leasing approach is best for brands that do have airports already in their business strategy.

He says these brands will be looking for good locations and right-size spaces. Co-tenancy, flexible economics, and shared risk are also options that might secure those types of brands.

But for brands that do not currently include airports in their business strategy, McGinn recommends using a concession operator approach.

“Fundamentally, this is a situation where the brand has a license agreement with a concession operator to both market the brand into the airport location and also to operate it for them,” McGinn says.

McGinn notes that this arrangement also offers airports the advantage of the expertise of the concession operator.