Covid-19's impact

on shoppers motivations

Customers’ motivations for airport shopping are uniquely intertwined with the very reason of their presence: traveling

Different travelers have different motivations to visit the airports stores:

  • Autonomy: purchase travel essentials to be less dependent on airlines service (typically, a bottle of water or a snack)
  • Entertainment: shop around to kill time in airport (even without buying)
  • Deals: enjoy (perceived) good deals on alcohol and tobacco, as well as some cosmetics and luxury products (mostly in duty free)
  • Stress relief: follow a routine or give in to temptation to escape an overwhelming, stressing environment (typically: chocolate, an airport best-seller worldwide). It has to be noted though that stress in general is conducive to lower overall sales, but drives specific ones
  • Status affirmation: higher-end purchases that allow passenger to reaffirm their social status damaged by the unsettling experience of security (walking barefoot in public…), or even self-stylize as member of a global traveling elite 
  • Convenience: take advantage of the in-airport retail opportunities to check items off a pre-existing shopping list (shirts, ties…, including whatever was forgotten to avoid the hassle of finding a store at destination)
  • Social and natural needs (thirst, hunger): sit at a restaurant table with the traveling party or take-away for in-airport consumption.

What will be the impact of Covid on these motivations and the related offers?

There are some potential opportunities to grow passenger spending and counterbalance the effect of traffic loss

  • Travelers’ desire for autonomy is expected to grow, as airlines cut on-board service (and as long as security limitations to bringing liquids are still enforced): retailers have an opportunity there, as long as they can deliver this promise of autonomy in a way that’s compatible with sanitary standards (low touch, adequately packaged…). However, travelers must be aware that possibility exists
  • Finding a good deal could be a good post-Covid motivation, as the new passenger mix is expected to include more budget-conscious profiles. Deals will need to be real deals though
  • Social and natural needs will still be there, and reinforced by the need for more autonomy; however, cafés and restaurants will have to restore confidence of patrons (mimicking high-street sanitary-proven and socially-accepted norms should be the best way).

However, other motivations may become less relevant

  • Convenience shopping (mostly specialty stores) will face increased competition from e-commerce alternatives that cultivated customer loyalty during the sanitary crisis
  • Status affirmation may also be less relevant at a time when priorities shift “inwards”, as stated by a respondent in a Makethink research group: “the world is unsettling, it’s not a time for indulgence, it’s a time for caring”
  • Stress relief purchase may be affected, as shopping cannot be both the cause of new sanitary-related stress and its solution.

What about entertainment?

Last, the motivation to shop around for entertainment is also at risk. Travelers are more than ever tempted to settle in a quiet place and use their own phones (or tablets) to keep themselves busy and entertained. However, there is some room for manoeuver. Currently, less than half of those who enter stores for their entertainment actually purchase: the challenge is therefore not necessarily to increase sales, but generate value through creating opportunities for brands to engage customers. With this in mind, airports could partner with an expanded pool of companies to create “brand-based entertainment”. This strategy calls for hybrid retail/advertising models that take into account the new physical constraints of the post-Covid world.

The same thinking could be used to reinvent the concept of convenience. This expanded pool of brands could be mobilized by the airport to actually deliver services and add value to the overall experience while engaging their audience at the same time. This would allow a shift in the perception of the airport/brand dynamic, moving away from the “mall model” to create a space of services and opportunities where travelers can compose their time.

Another dimension of convenience is the convenience of purchase itself, which now includes a feeling of health safety: ordering through airport proprietary mobile channels or through partners (either before being at the airport or while in the airport), micro-delivery at gate or in lockers on the way to the gate, etc.

In a nutshell

An analysis of motivations show how disruptive new post-Covid behaviors may be for retailers in airports & stations. Such dramatic changes call for structural change in the physical shopping experience, business models, integration with e-merchants, and more.

Yet, such changes will require significant investments at a time when all travel retail actors are experiencing massive drops in sales. It is a balancing act between seeking first mover advantage and consolidating enough information about this new, fast-changing habits, to differentiate real long-term trends from short-lived behaviors.

The only practical path is to experiment, test and prototype in order to gather more data points and be in a better position to make investment decisions.

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