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Airport Shopping Takes Off

(December 1999)

If you are traveling in December, it's often hard to find time to complete your holiday shopping. Now you can finish your shopping while you're on the road. American airports are finally realizing what the foreign airports have known all along – airport shopping is a big hit. If you haven't noticed, new and recently renovated U.S. airports are starting to resemble shopping malls instead of the sterile looking airports of yesteryear.

Airport shopping can be an enjoyable experience, especially during the holidays when many traditional stores are crowded. Airports also offer a shopping feature that is hard to find elsewhere - early morning hours. You can even have your gifts wrapped and shipped at various terminals for free.

Airport shopping has been so successful recently that gadget retailer, Brookstone is crediting airport sales with reviving the company's slumping profits. Airport shopping has also been a boon for airports and the local economies surrounding them, according to the BAA, the world's largest commercial operator of airports.* There are good reasons for this rush towards retailing. Faced with increased demand for air travel, airports around the globe need funds to meet the escalating cost of new terminals, runways and general facilities.

BAA's research shows that passengers traveling through terminals with vast shopping areas spend more. At Pittsburgh International (this writer’s favorite airport), the airport's AirMall® is the most successful airport shopping mall in the world. With over 100 shops, including Clinique, The Gap, and Mont Blanc, the Sam Adams Brew Pub and a fitness center, the average passenger spends $9 per trip compared to the pre-AirMall® era of $1.70.

BAA states that at its other airports, customers spend an average of $6.97 per trip. Frequent fliers are choosing to fly to airports like Pittsburgh. Al Hayes, a Boston businessman, says, "If I have to connect, I always to try to do it in Pittsburgh. The airport allows me to catch up on some shopping for my family and clients – something I may not accomplish until I have a day off. I'd rather spend my day off not shopping. Having an airport with great shopping allows me to kill two birds with one stone …so to speak."

Not all the people shopping in airports are airline passengers. Many people are coming to the airports just to shop. For instance, at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the three WH Smith gift shops in the Delta Air Lines and Comair facilities sell as many as 2,000 beanie baby toys a day. Most of the sales come from local shoppers, who often congest the shops to get the stuffed animals. So much, in fact, that many travelers just needing newspapers or shampoo end up waiting in long lines.

Even with the success of Pittsburgh International, U.S. airports have yet to match the purchasing power of foreign airports like Frankfurt, Amsterdam's Schiphol, and Singapore's Changi. If U.S. airports stay on the same "flight plan" as their overseas counterparts, we are likely to see discos, karaoke bars, spas, and other shopping conveniences.

Is airport shopping a good deal? Yes and no. If you shop at Pittsburgh International and Washington National the shops offer the same prices as found in area malls - guaranteed. A toll-free number to call is available at both airports if shoppers believe they are charged more for merchandise at the airport than at the same store in a mall. In addition, most shops at both airports will wrap and often ship your purchases for free.

At London's airports, the Tax and Duty Free shops offer all goods that are normally subject to VAT– tax-free. BAA offers the "World Shopping Promise”, where you can save up to 40% on street prices on fragrances, and up to 20% on all wines, champagnes and spirits. Furthermore, passengers traveling within the EU and in the UK can now collect their shopping upon their return. BAA offers a "Shopping Collection Service" which allows passengers to shop at as many retailers after security control as they like and pick up their purchases upon their return. This saves the hassle of carrying bags of shopping to business meetings, or with you on holiday. Currently, this service is free.

Singapore's Changi Airport offers a "double guarantee". All liquor, tobacco, perfumes, and cosmetics are no higher than those at other major airports in the Asia Pacific Region; and all other goods are no higher than those in established downtown Singapore shops. If you should find their prices to be higher, simply produce an advertisement/receipt showing the lower downtown price within a month from the date of purchase at Changi Airport, and the store will refund you double the price difference. In addition, Changi Airport gives shoppers the option of pre-purchasing products over the phone or on the Internet that offer additional discounts and offers. Passengers simply pick purchases up at the store when they leave the country.

Unfortunately, not all airports are so consumer value-oriented. Recently, while on vacation in Orlando, I encountered outright gouging at the airport’s ©Disney Store. A stuffed Pluto was $25 at the airport store, while the very same one was $19 at a ©Disney Store in a local Orlando mall. Furthermore, the airport’s concession prices were outrageous. I found the same true at Las Vegas’s McCarren International, store merchandise prices were higher and concession fare was exceptionally high. It appears that the top two vacation destinations in the U.S. have airport retailers that price their merchandise much higher than local off airport retailers.

The end of duty-free sales between European Union (EU) countries has led to some unique buying opportunities and competition between European airports for shoppers' money. Shops at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport announced that they would pay VAT on all items except alcohol and tobacco bought by travelers within the EU. The move is expected to cost Schipol as much as $40 million a year.

Is this retail explosion something travelers really want, or is it just another way to take advantage of a captive audience and their money? Whatever the consensus may be, it’s clear that airport shopping is here to stay, and will undoubtedly become bigger and more widespread. The key for the consumer is to know which airport shops offer goods with reasonable prices and to avoid the ones that are more into gouging.

Related Links:

Amersterdam's Schipol Airport


Frankfurt's Airport Shops

Airmall, Pittsburgh International Airport

Boston Landing at Terminal C, Logan International Airport, Terminal C

National Hall, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Terminals B and C

Los Angeles International Airport, Various terminals

*BAA operates seven airports in the United Kingdom - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton. Outside the UK, they manage all or part of eight airports - Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Harrisburg and Newark in the USA, Melbourne and Launceston in Australia, Naples in Italy and Mauritius.

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