Travel retail: How will airport retailers recover from Covid-19 losses?

The Covid-19 pandemic has gravely impacted the retail industry. While high street retail is starting to recover, airport retail is still operating in uncertainty due to the low footfall and advice against non-essential travel.

Pre-pandemic expectation was that airport retail sales would reach $48.2 bn in 2020, a 6.1% rise on 2019 levels. This was because of the steady increase in air travel, as well as major events such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which would boost air travel.

However, as we know, the story unfolded in a different way and the pandemic completely halted air travel and airport retail. With air travel slowly increasing in number, the Allied Market Research’s report Airport Retailing Market predicts the airport retail industry to reach $40.5 bn in sales by 2027, CAGR of 12.6% from 2021 to 2027.

Though the reduced footfall is a concern for airport retailers, m1nd-set found conversion to be improving. Since 2017, conversion (share of buyers out of visitors) had been decreasing, from 66% to 52% in 2020; but in 2021 conversion increased to 59%.

This may sound good in theory, but the growth may just be as a result of travellers being more intentional about their time in stores. 86% of people in an ACI survey said they plan to spend less money in airports; 43% said they will avoid interaction with sales staff; and 38% said they will avoid entering stores altogether. Therefore, the high conversion will not necessarily result in high sales and recovery from the pandemic since footfall is expected to remain lowVisit Britain forecasts 11.3 million inbound visits to the UK, which is only 28% of 2019 level.  

Furthermore, with the Treasury ending VAT-free shopping at UK airports travellers will be more reluctant to shop. We’re already seeing Dixons Carphone closing all its travel stores; perhaps other businesses will also struggle to survive through the pandemic.

Solution:

1) Omnichannel

In the past, airport retailers have focused on attracting travellers into the stores. However, consumers are now less willing to engage with physical stores and products before purchasing.

Thus, Peter Mohn, CEO of m1nd-set, stresses the importance of omnichannel retailing in airports in order to make consumers feel safe and offer price competitivity. He found that in 2021, 53% of global travellers are willing to shop online or pre-order and collect the products upon boarding, which is a sharp increase from 24% in 2020.

It’s clear that consumers are looking for contactless shopping experiences and price-sensitive shoppers are using online shopping as a way to compare prices. Therefore, retailers have to create new experiences in the digital space whether it be on their websites or social media. Engaging consumers thorough technology is going to help retailers recover from the pandemic losses.  

There are already some great examples of businesses who are adopting technology to keep up with consumer demand. For instance, the Grab App is being utilised in many European, American, and Middle Eastern airports to limit contact. Similarly, Auckland Airport’s Head of Omnichannel, Jayne Wear, is working towards innovating the airport’s omnichannel offer by partnering with software company AOE GmbH. Auckland Airport’s multi-channel retailer The Mall already uses WeChat to connect with Chinese consumers digitally, which is valuable since 62% Chinese shoppers have said they would prefer to shop online.

2) Experiential shopping

Creative use of technology is key to attracting and retaining customers in the airport retailing sector. ‘No contact’ experiences can be achieved through technology; and since people have time to spend in airports, experiential shopping will improve footfall and ultimately conversion.

Hamad International Airport’s Lancôme and YSL Beauté Cafés engages shoppers with augmented reality beauty stores which helps improve footfall and time spent in the stores. AR and VR technology doesn’t have to be limited to beauty brands. For example, fashion brands can use smart mirrors to search for products and try them on. Or take inspiration from JD’s app which utilised in-app AR technology to try on footwear.

Other easy ‘in-store’ experiences can be QR codes which are great at connecting omnichannel. Shoppers can find out more information without speaking to sales staff and also go to social media pages or website for inspiration and/or promotions.

3) Sustainability

Sustainable fashion and beauty is another way for airport retailers to attract consumers. More and more consumers are concerned with sustainability. In fact, over 80% of travellers have said they perceive sustainable brands more positively and are more willing to purchase from them. Two-thirds of travellers are even willing to pay the premium price of environmentally friendly products and packaging.

Thus, it is important for retailers in airports to not only work toward becoming more sustainable but also be transparent with consumers in order to build trust. Moreover, retailers should focus on creating a brand identity that is in line with their target customers values as consumers are more inclined to buy from brands with which their values are aligned.

In summary, with air travel opening back up, airport retailers have an opportunity to recover from the covid losses by keeping up with consumer demand and operating with sensitivity to the issue of safety.

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