Forget retail – everyone else has

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns brought to you in association with CircleSquare. To introduce a note of positivity and hope in 2021, the experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist will use this column to share insights, ideas and tips to help the global travel retail industry get back on its feet and capitalise on the opportunities that present themselves. You’ll read advice on strategic planning, the successful incorporation of digital to the traveller journey, and much more besides. Here, Executive Creative Director Philip Handley discusses how to build travel retail back better by engaging differently with travelling consumers.

She was quietly enjoying her breakfast one morning, when a simple, innocent question caught Jackie horribly off-guard. “If you don’t mind me asking,” explained the elderly landlady, in whose seaside house Jackie had been staying for the past few weeks, “where did you head off to in the middle of the night?” Jackie noticed her pulse quicken and she started to shift nervously in her seat. Of all people, had this little old lady been the first to discover Jackie’s terrible secret? Our beleaguered industry also feels like it is finally experiencing the dawning of a new day, emerging from a deep and unexpectedly long slumber caused by the global pandemic. As we suppress the greatest of yawns, stretch out our inactive limbs and rub 12 months of sleep out of our eyes in preparation to seize the day like no other before it, like Jackie, we are all starting to feel that something is not quite right. Jackie struggled to maintain her poker face as she attempted to change the subject. But this persistent old woman was having none of it.

CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley

“I heard you come down the stairs in the early hours of the morning, then watched out of the window as you put on a leather jacket, gloves and your crash helmet, climbed onto your motorbike and sped off into the night,” continued the landlady. “I was starting to worry about you but after about 20 minutes, I saw you return, park the bike in exactly the same place you found it and head back up the stairs to bed.” Jackie swallowed hard; this old lady was in for a hell of a surprise. A decade of growing passenger numbers, averaging between +5% and +8% year-on-year, had expanded the global travel industry to a staggering scale. But these burgeoning passenger numbers had papered over the cracks of the shopper experience and hidden the fault lines in the retail offering for too long and then suddenly the pandemic, just like the persistent old lady, had asked the awkward question nobody wanted to answer. “I’m a somnambulist”, explained Jackie to the concerned and puzzled old lady, “a sleep-walker, if you like. Even though I am fully asleep, I have the ability to do things on autopilot. Despite me being asleep my subconscious just takes over and, as crazy as it sounds, I can ride a motorbike or even drive a car in my sleep”. The story of Jackie sounds fanciful, but it is 100% true and well documented by renowned neurologist and somnambulism expert, Professor Guy Leschziner. Jackie is one of his most famous patients. While we might not all be midnight motorcyclists and nocturnal navigators like Jackie, the incredible thing is, our brains work in exactly the same way as hers; the things we do repeatedly become so habitual we can do them in autopilot.

Have you ever experienced that feeling when you are travelling to or from work (maybe not so much in lockdown, admittedly) and when you arrive, you realise you have no recollection of the journey? People often follow the same morning routine of showering, dressing, making coffee, grabbing breakfast etc., and it’s not until they step into the fresh air outside that they really ‘wake up’….and suddenly wonder whether they left the iron plugged in or failed to lock the backdoor. Autopilot again. In 2007, neuroscientists at Oxford University discovered that adults had 41% fewer neurons in their brain than the average newborn child. Initially this made no sense as adults are clearly more intelligent and better skilled. It turns out that ‘smarts’ are nothing to do with the number of neurons we have in our brains but the connections, known as synapses, we have between the neurons. The human brain brilliantly recognises when we carry out the same tasks over again, building stronger synapses between the necessary neurons so that we can repeat these tasks even more efficiently in future; a bit like activating our autopilot. A pianist, for example, might subconsciously exploit this neurological miracle and, by practicing every day for years, will be able to play an extraordinarily complex musical piece with apparent ease.

However, there is a downside. Just as the brain creates, or bulks, certain synapses, it ruthlessly removes any synapses which are not regularly used. Neuroscientists refer to this phenomenon as ‘synaptic pruning’, probably in the same way a gardener would cut back certain parts of a rose bush in order to make the other parts flourish. And it’s because of this this ‘pruning’ that, when you returned to junior school after a long summer vacation, you found it surprisingly hard to write properly in your exercise book. The synapses had already started to be pruned back after only a couple of months of inactivity.

As we prepare to raise the shutters on our travel retail stores and welcome back the millions of passengers returning to global travel, surely we can expect them all to descend upon the stores with the same hunger they had before, right? Wrong. Very wrong. The vast majority of our shoppers have spent 12 months away from our stores (snip, snip). Not only will they have forgotten how to shop in airports, but they have also formed new shopping habits in what has become their ‘new normal’ such as one-click digital shopping, next day home delivery, added-value personalisation and all through the convenience of a smartphone.

The reality is we need help our shoppers build new synapses, so let’s embrace this opportunity and build them back better than ever. To give you a cheeky head-start, here’s our guide to building a better travel retail: Deeper Connections Understand your shopper better than ever before and forge deep connections by delivering more meaningful and more personalised brand experiences. Early Influence Target your ‘always on’ shoppers directly and ahead of their journey so that you can influence their behaviour and drive them into store. Embrace Omnichannel Shoppers are now fully multi-channel and they rightly expect the same seamless service from brands and retailers whether they are online or offline (even when they switch between the two…and then switch back again). Leverage Digital Redefine the roles of the store format based upon whether each step of shopping process is better delivered through digital or physical. Who wants to stand in a queue for ten minutes when you can make a purchase instantaneously with your thumb? Atmospheric Welcome Create the perfect atmosphere to welcome back our shoppers by removing the endless shelves of identical products and giving up the space to encourage discovery and adventure. Champion Experiential Without boundless experiences, irresistible activations and evocative environments, there is no longer a need for shoppers to enter the store environment. It’s time to get creative. Connect Every Touchpoint Streamline the online and offline shopper experience to give shoppers a single, personal and more engaging consumer journey from when they first experience online influencers on social media, through the physical store experience and onto post-trip CRM content. Remember, when you finally throw open your doors, don’t sleepwalk back to how you functioned in the pre-pandemic world. You have the golden opportunity of a generation to forge a new path, to reconnect to your potential shoppers in innovative new ways and build a better industry than we ever had before.

*About Circle Square

If you want to start building for a better future, CircleSquare, with its global network of creative studios, is uniquely placed to help you develop evocative environments, connected omnichannel shopper strategies and boundless passenger experiences, seamlessly across both the digital and physical worlds.

CircleSquare’s in-depth understanding of global travel retail has earned it an impressive client list, including Diageo, Mondelez, Luxottica, Lacoste and L’Oréal Luxe, alongside retailers like DFS, Dufry and Heinemann.

CircleSquare has offices in nine global locations including London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, covering every phase of the retail journey process from strategy and creative to design and delivery. You’ll find its work in retail stores, pop-up spaces and airports all over the world.

Contact: Executive Creative Director Philip Handley at

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The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 292 | 11 March 2021

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 15 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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