Skip navigation
Retail Traffic

High Flying Retail

At Washington National Airport, Westfield is fine tuning the new business of airport retail management.

This summer, travelers flying out of Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., were introduced to the airport's newest addition. National Hall, which opened in the airport on July 27, contains 37 stores and presents a striking contrast to conventional retail.

"This kind of airport retail is a business that didn't exist a few years ago," says Richard E. Green, president of the Los Angeles-based Westfield Corp. Inc., which developed and now manages National Airport's 31,200 sq. ft. of retail space. "I travel all the time. When my kids were young, buying presents for them was always difficult. Now as I pass through an airport, it's a whole new world."

At National Airport, it's a spectacular new world. As travelers emerge from the stores, they face a five-story, 58-ft.-high glass wall with a view that sweeps east over the runways and the Potomac River, framing the nation's capital from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. Architect Cesar Pelli designed the terminal to give a view of Washington from the ground as panoramic as the view from arriving and departing aircraft.

The architectural style of the terminal itself is distinctive, with tall domed ceilings and a network of yellow supporting steel. In addition, Pelli adorned the $450 million structure with artwork, which was commissioned to fit the architectural image and tone. The art commissions totalled $5.5 million.

The 1 million sq. ft. National Hall runs north and south, with three boarding piers jutting east. Along the west wall of the concourse, 23 retail shops open toward the glass wall. Each store averages 900 sq. ft.; the National Geographic store, however, is the largest among them, totaling 1,900 sq. ft. Across the concourse, Smithsonian Museum Store is the largest shop in the airport at 2,373 sq. ft.

Fifteen retail shops, kiosks and carts run along the east side of the concourse and into the piers. The low slung carts and kiosks enable retailers to showcase merchandise without blocking the exterior view from the concourse.

National Hall offers a mix of national, regional and local retailers. National tenants include The Gap, Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Gymboree, PGA Tour Shop and The Disney Store. Regional and local tenants include Capital Image, Pen & Prose, As Kindred Spirits, America and The Bouvier Collection.

Westfield brought a number of retail firsts to National Hall. Shops developed by high-profile organizations exclusively for the facility include National Zoo, Smithsonian and National Geographic. In addition, six national retailers -- Waldenbooks, Brookstone, Victoria's Secret, Gymboree, Easy Spirit and Travel 2000 -- have touched down at National with their first airport stores.

Managing is turbulent Managing an airport mall is challenging to Westfield Corp., a subsidiary of Sydney, Australia-based Westfield Holdings Ltd. The company must adjust to the differences between the new business of airport retail and the familiarities of conventional retail.

Airport demographics, for example, reverse the classic 60-to-40 percent women-to-men ratio of a mall market. "Generally in airports, we see a market that is 65 percent to 70 percent men and 30 percent to 35 percent women," says Judy Tuttle, vice president and airport leasing director for Westfield. "In addition, the median income of a traveler is higher than that of a typical mall shopper."

Approximately 15.5 million passengers -- and potential customers -- pass through National each day. Possible patrons also include 10,000 airport employees and the numerous well-wishers and greeters that accompany passengers to and from the gates.

Not all passengers present retail opportunities at National, however. The airport is an origination and destination facility, and only about 5 percent of the passengers flying into National catch a connecting flight.

"We based our sales projections on 8 million people a year," Tuttle says. "In an airport, we talk about sales per enplaning passengers -- the people who come to the airport to fly out. Deplaning passengers shop sometimes, but you can't count on it. Normally, deplaning passengers get off the plane and leave without even passing through the retail area."

The psychographics of airport retail prospects differ from shopping centers as well. "People don't go to airports to shop," Tuttle says. "They go to travel. So we were looking for retailers offering impulse merchandise rather than destination purchases."

What does that mean? "People just don't take off their pants in an airport," says Tuttle. "So the type of apparel we have here doesn't need to be tried on. Most of it is outerwear. The Gap has a dressing area. But most Gap customers already know their sizes and don't have to try things on."

Design issues Not only must airport retailers adjust to a different customer base and management style, there are design restrictions in an airport terminal with which they must comply. For instance, despite smaller store sizes, wide aisles are required to accommodate passengers with carry-on baggage.

Store front criteria are set by The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at National. The Authority has insisted on a common look for all the store fronts along the west side of National Hall. The design calls for 8-ft.-wide modules, with a vertical mullion or post placed every 8 ft.

"If you have a 16 ft. store front opening, you also have a mullion in the middle," says Michael Hirschbein, tenant coordination director for Westfield. "We tried to modify this requirement, but the Airports Authority was firm.

"We were able to influence other points," he adds. "The criteria originally called for the same type fonts for all of the signage, which runs on a band above the store fronts. In these discussions, the Authority agreed with us that the retailers should be able to use their own logo type."

The Disney Store ran up against a criterion that conflicted directly with its interior design. A design control zone flows 2 ft. into the stores from the front lease line. The Authority specifies terrazzo flooring to match the common area corridor in that area.

"Disney's typical design includes a terrazzo Mickey Mouse set in a large oval right inside the door, within the control zone," says Hirschbein. "When we discussed this with the Authority, they decided to make an exception."

National's retailers also must adjust to operations that differ from those required in a typical mall. "Every store is required by lease to provide shipping services for passengers already burdened with luggage," says Steve Johnson, airport retail regional manager in the National Airport office for Westfield. "Stores also are required to be open during the airport's hours of operation, which run from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and we don't have abbreviated hours on Sunday, [which is] one of the biggest days at an airport."

The selling seasons also differ from those of conventional retail. While the holidays certainly produce increased travel, the summer vacation months provide the heaviest traffic of the year for airport retailers.

Implementing marketing programs With millions of travelers passing through the airport each day, attracting people to airport stores is not a problem. The challenge is getting them into the stores to shop.

"In a shopping center, you spend 80 percent of your marketing fund to attract people to the center," Johnson says. "In an airport, the people are there, and our marketing efforts aim to divert people into the stores. We do this by advertising that the prices [in the airport] are competitive with the prices they will find in a mall."

Johnson uses marketing resources to provide customer service training for employees, organizing full-day seminars and half-day follow-up training for them. One of the key training points is speed of service, he says.

"In a shopping center, you train people to show a lot of options," Johnson explains. "Here, we train people to ask a lot of questions fast, narrow the choices, and present one or two options."

The management office employs secret shoppers to monitor and respond to the performance of salespeople. "If a secret shopper sees a salesperson do something unusual -- carry a package to the gate for a customer, for example -- we'll reward the salesperson on the spot," Johnson says. "A reward might be $50 or tickets to a baseball game."

Common ground Despite their contrasts, there are a number of similarities between airport and mall retailing. At National, lease rates average a fairly standard $120 per sq. ft. Sales per square foot can run as high as $900 for large stores -- higher than a mall average -- but gross volumes in the smaller airport stores tend to mirror mall store performances.

"In a typical regional mall, a 3,500 sq. ft. bookstore will do about $1.1 million in annual sales," Johnson says. "The bookstore at Dulles does about $1.3 million."

According to Timothy Lowe, Westfield's airport business development director, the key to understanding the difference between airport and mall retail lies in recognizing the fact that an airport is not a shopping center. An airport authority's sole purpose is to serve the airlines, and the airlines want to move people through ticketing to the gates as quickly as possible.

"What has led to the growth of airport retail is that retail revenue, which is called non-airline revenue, reduces what the airlines pay to operate the airport," Lowe says. "As airlines have come to understand this, they have begun to think that airport retail is a good idea, as long as it doesn't compromise the airport's basic job of moving passengers."

At National, the airlines wanted "what they called a 'retail look in an airport,'" Lowe says. "By this, they meant something different from a conventional retail mall. They meant something designed to enhance the experience of passengers moving toward the gate."

While airport retail has become a fixure at Washington National, this non-traditional venue is still in its infancy. Westfield is fine-tuning airport retailing as the company adjusts to non-traditional demographics, design restrictions and marketing programs. As the new business of airport retailing is perfected, however, retail opportunities can only take off.

There are 37 stores at National Hall. They are:

Nationals: Art Of Silk Bath & Body Works Brookstone The Disney Store Easy Spirit Faber, Coe & Gregg (two locations) The Gap Gymboree Imposters News Emporium Perfumania PGA Tour Shop Press Relay (two locations) Sunglass Hut Sweet Factory Travel 2000 Victoria's Secret Waldenbooks Watch Station Wilson's Leather

Regional: AltiTunes America! Magic Pens and more

Local: As Kindred Spirits The Bouvier Collection Capital Image Metro Sports National Dry Cleaners National Geographic Society Shop National Zoo Store Pen & Prose The Electronic Edge Smithsonian Museum Store Taxco Sterling The Retail Court (a single retailer that sells merchandise from Sharper Image, Capital Color, Capital Kids, DKNY, Fossil and Oval Office)

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.