Road to Recovery

‘Sense of Space’: Reimagining the airport retail experience for the new world

Glyn Williams, former General Manager Retail, Sydney Airport and Senior Vice President Asia-Pacific, Harding Retail, considers the challenges ahead for airport retail in the COVID-19 environment. He looks back at how shopping and dining has evolved in the airport world, and suggests a new phrase to encapsulate the focus of what is needed from retail planners: Sense of Space.

Hasn’t airport retail come a long way in the last ten to 15 years, writes Glyn Williams? What was previously considered to be the poorer cousin to High Street retail has been transformed.

We now see a number of airports providing world-class retail experiences. They have been successful in focusing on the whole experience as a total product offering through creative and consistent design and sourcing. ‘Out-of-airport’ imaginativeness – the cool, the hot, the extraordinary has been introduced.

You only have to look at airports like Singapore Changi, Zürich and Copenhagen to know that the commercial teams there ‘get it’. They know what they want to be, understand the customer and know their operating constraints.

The customer! Remember them. Those airports that listened to customers got exceptional results both financially and in terms of reputation through customer satisfaction ratings. The customer said: “We don’t want to visit airports that are generic in design and offer, we want to know where in the world we are.”

“As a result of social distancing and a touch-free world, there is the distinct possibility that what was considered exciting only a few months ago will be avoided tomorrow.”

–Glyn Williams

And so Sense of Place became a key driver in the product offering. Excellent examples of this can be found in Auckland Airport, Doha’s Hamad International Airport and the exceptional new Istanbul Airport. The design elements at airports like these immediately immerse you into the location. You know exactly where you are.

The product at great airports continued to evolve. They kept up with the changing sentiment of the consumer and the shift towards the need for a greater sense of community and authenticity, in a world becoming de-sensitised by technology. Demand increased for greater connection to what was being purchased.

For example, the introduction of big name chefs into the food & beverage mix and the reduction of less-credible proprietary airport-only brands became essential – as was communicating how the produce was sourced.

In effect, the customer wanted to know the postcode from where the zucchini came, where the salmon was caught and that the coffee was ethically-sourced. They wanted to be amazed and surprised and were willing to pay more for quality and experience. Experience became more important than the buying of ‘stuff’.

Sense of Place became Senses of Place. It was about the look, feel, smell, taste and sounds associated with what you were consuming. Have a look at Kitchen by Mike at Sydney Airport or Teppan at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and you can see what I mean.

Kitchen by Mike at Sydney and Teppan at Paris-Charles de Gaulle evoke strong Senses of Place at their respective airports

The problem is, in the current COVID-19 situation, to visit these airports and exceptional stores you can only do so by checking out their profiles online. Maybe what I’ve just been talking about will no longer be exciting when the world starts travelling again. Maybe expectations will change.

Actually let’s remove the ‘maybe’…. expectations will change. We are changed by what’s happening in our world right now. Airport operators and retailers will need to think closely about what this will look like for them and they simply cannot take ten to 15 years to do so.

In the future the customer will want Sense of Space. As a result of social distancing and a touch-free world, there is the distinct possibility that what was considered exciting only a few months ago will be avoided tomorrow.

As distancing becomes the new norm, the question of how consumers will react to new airport environments looms large

What will airports and airport retail look like in the future? For sure it will include clean de-cluttered lines, both in the terminal and in-store. It will involve bright colours, natural light and enhanced lighting, space to move around (like we see in Changi) or the perception of greater space through creative design solutions (as in Helsinki).

We might see duty free stores with congested winding paths removed and more purchasing done by both product scan/collection or pre-order/collection, thereby removing some of the usual touch points.

Will the customer of the future who requires a connecting flight to get to their destination choose the hub they use based on feeling health-safe? And will they be willing to pay more to achieve that or, where possible, avoid hubs totally if they feel such airports have the potential of increasing risk?

Time will tell but for sure Sense of Place will ease in importance and without doubt the future of travel will be about a Sense of Space.

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The Moodie Davitt eZine

Issue 280 | 3 June 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 12 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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