Airports Are Being Transformed Into Shopping Malls

9/11 had an unforeseen consequence that likely annoys anti-Americans and cheers President “Shop For Freedom” Bush: it triggered an explosion of self-contained shopping malls at airports across the country. One airport consultant says, “All of the sudden, any airport … can be a retail opportunity. It really has turned into a very different environment than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” which is why so many large airports today look like compressed shopping malls instead of travel hubs.

“What’s important about airport traffic is the volume of travelers,” said Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation. “It’s … new traffic every day.”

The number and variety of airport retail offerings has been growing for years, experts say. But it really took off after 9/11. As travelers were urged to arrive more than two hours before flights to clear security, the captive audience in the terminals shot up.

Not that travelers are necessarily suffering from the increased options—when you’re stuck in a terminal for several hours and numb from travel, it can be a pleasant diversion to wander through the shopping district like a mall zombie.

“Travelers get new and cheaper shopping options in airports” [The Kansas City Star]
(Photo: Doug Letterman)

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  1. Buran says:

    Yeah, right, malls that you can’t get to unless you’ve already been raped by an airline for a ticket that doesn’t include food, so you have to buy the overpriced concourse food. Seems like a conspiracy theory to me, only probably true this time.

    How about opening up these “shopping opportunities” to people who happen to live nearby and actually like watching planes come and go? I bet there’s a nice untapped market there.

  2. DrGirlfriend says:

    I was struck by that a couple of months ago at DFW. I had no time for window shopping because I was racing to make a connection, but I noticed how mall-ish it looked.

  3. MENDOZA!!!!! says:

    it also helps that most people have to sit around 50% longer based on plane delays. that will jack up Sabarro’s sales.
    oooh, that makes for an interesting conspiracy theory!

  4. esqdork says:

    There is a bookstore at Oakland International that posts a municipal law requiring it to charge the same price for its goods as other stores in its chain within a certain mileage radius. Seems like pretty good legislating to me.

  5. holocron says:

    I think there was a trend to make airports shopping destinations and “the new town square” well before the events and aftermath of 9/11.

  6. faust1200 says:

    This came in handy for me one time. Before a long flight I had purchased a portable DVD player at a local Discovery Channel store. By the time I reached Denver International my player wasn’t reading any DVD’s. I noticed a Discovery Channel store in the terminal and without a receipt or anything they swapped it for me so I was good to go for the remainder of my flights.

  7. mopar_man says:

    I don’t get it. Who buys this overpriced crap? Every time I’ve flown, I NEVER go into those stores.

  8. Zelle999 says:

    I had to travel last month to New Orleans. I was dying of thirst and hate carrying fountain drinks onto the plane so I bought a bottle of Pepsi from one of their little shops. Almost THREE FREAKIN’ DOLLARS! I’m not talking a two-liter bottle. A little 12 oz regular bottle. It came out with tax to, like, $2.83.

    There is no doubt in my mind that there is something fishy going on.

  9. XopherMV says:

    Airports were set up as malls ten years ago. In fact, it was worse ten years ago before all the 9/11 security precautions went into effect. Back when people could meet at the gate instead of at the security checkpoints, the airport was constantly full of people. And the airports loved selling to those people.

  10. Canadian Impostor says:

    @Buran: In Boston there are laws that say you can’t sell anything at the airport for more than any store sells them for in the zip codes comprising Boston proper.

    It’s really nice and I’ve never run into that anywhere else.

  11. hollerhither says:

    @holocron:
    Yes — the “new” Pittsburgh airport, as one example.

  12. kerrington.steele says:

    the only thing I ever buy in an airport is alcohol, to muffle the sounds of the colicky babies’ screams and to make the flight delay go by faster. I recommend this policy to everyone — it makes the flying experience slightly less awful, and beers in airport bars are no more expensive than at most New York drinking establishments!

  13. JustAGuy2 says:

    @hollerhither:

    Exactly. This is NOT a new trend. The company that runs Schipol Airport in Amsterdam pioneered it – they now run a bunch of airports worldwide.

    The focus isn’t on selling $3 bottles of soda, but rather on selling $3000 watches. Lots of luxury goods retailers in major airports these days.

  14. VA_White says:

    I have started bringing a bento box with me when I fly. Much better than anything you can get in the terminal or on the plane and because it’s all packed neatly into my carry-on and very nondescript, not one airport security guard has asked me to discard my lunch before proceeding through security.

    They recognize the shape of a juice pouch, water bottle, or prepackaged fruit cup but a bento lunch looks like nothing special on the x-ray. I avoid packing liquid foods and I apply the sauce onto the food beforehand rather than put it in a side container like I usually do. Never have a problem.

  15. savvy999 says:

    Do they sell kid-size Crocs? Lots of escalators in most airports.

  16. @mopar_man: I bought a book the last time I flew. I’d read everything I bought by the time I flew home. At least they can’t really charge a premium on books, just the not-discount price.

    Also I got a kick-ass breakfast, really reasonably priced, at Wolfgang Puck’s at O’Hare. I had to be up at 4 a.m. to make my plane, so I was way ready for a full-on hot breakfast by the time I was through security. $8 for bacon, eggs, toast, and roasted potatoes, and it was more than I could eat.

  17. @Eyebrows McGee: “I’d read everything I bought” — edit to I’d read everything I BROUGHT, which was why I had to BUY something to read on the way home.

  18. JayEnDee says:

    @Canadian Impostor: The Pittsburgh airport has the same pricing law. Nothing is more expensive than the other stores in the area.

  19. GrantGannon says:

    I’ll buy a trinket or two in gift stores, maybe a magazine on impulse.

    But an IPod or Bulova watch? Hardly.

  20. Youthier says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Agreed. 99% of the time I buy anything at the airport, it’s a book or magazine to get me through the flight.

    And ditto on that Wolfgang Puck’s. I ate there for a breakfast a couple of weeks ago and it was great.

  21. quail says:

    Hmm, like stated by a few others this was a trend before 9/11. From the late 90’s on several airports were in the midst of becoming shopping malls. Pittsburgh, DFW, and Portland Oregon come to mind right away. And even before them Atlanta and Orlando’s airports were shopping meccas to begin with when they were built. The trend probably was helped with the prisoner effect caused by the airline security. There’s no more crossing the street at the Albuquerque airport to get some great, cheap Mexican food. Too much hassle.

  22. catskyfire says:

    Remember that part of the pricing is to help cover things like rent. Airports recognize that THEY can charge a premium for rent, and do. Add in the fact that every employee has to be security checked, and costs go up. (How many BK employees are normally checked that well…)

    And then there is the same reason things cost so much at amusement parks. Captive audience. Whether it’s a $3.00 bottle of soda or a $25.00 t-shirt, someone will buy it.

    That said, when travel hassles caused me to miss my connecting flight and stuck me in Denver for 4 or 5 hours, looking at shops was rather pleasant. And I even made a few purchases. Admittedly, I didn’t buy the $2,500 picture I liked, but I did buy the small postcard size.

  23. rbb says:

    @quail: Include Reagan National in with that trend. Well before 9/11, Reagan National was running advertisements on the radio to draw people in to go shopping. It was a joke then and is still a joke. The prices are too high, parking costs too much and now, security is a hassle.

  24. XTC46 says:

    @Buran: @Cassifras:

    its called being smart, not a conspiracy. Shops see an area where people are sitting around with nothing o do for sometimes hours, why not put something for them to do there.

    I think people should put up arcades in busy terminals. Kids want something to do, give it to them. It would be a gold mind. You get all the income that an arcade brings, and way less risk because you don’t have people loitering around all day.

  25. SadSam says:

    There is a book store outlet that is in a number of airports that will buy back a book sold (at a discount) in any of its airport stores if you keep the receipt.

  26. @xtc46: Several Children’s Museums have exhibits at the local airport, which gives kids something to do. Although they’re usually fairly small since they’re non-profit and have to take whatever space the airport gives them. :)

  27. Snakeophelia says:

    Raleigh-Durham has (or at least used to have, in the late 90’s) a used bookstore. Not only could you pick up a paperback book for cheap on the way out, but when you got back you could trade it in for store credit. I’ve always thought airports should have “lending libraries” of some kind, specifically for this purpose.

  28. Benny Gesserit says:

    The same applies to Gatwick Airport in the UK – after security check you’ve got a two story, largely over-priced mall awaiting you before you before you head for your gate.

    For a practiced window-shopped like myself, it killed a few minutes. Buy any of it? Oh, get serious.

  29. Smackdown says:

    You can buy $10,000 jewelry in an airport, but good luck finding one decent place to sit down and have a meal (I am looking at you, Dallas Love Field, a.k.a. the shittiest airport in America).

  30. holocron says:

    @hollerhither: Exactly the airport I was thinking of.

  31. Buran says:

    @XopherMV: That’s what I’m saying in my post above, and people completely missed it. There are locals who would shop there. Yet, they’re cutting off millions in profit. They need to change that.

  32. BeFrugalNotCheap says:

    I’m glad this is being addressed. Back in may of this year on my return from Rome I had to switch planes in Atlanta. It was funny because at first I did’nt notice my surroundings as I rushed to the next terminal but after a few seconds it dawned on me: I’m in a freaking shopping mall. WTF? At least now there’s someplace to wander around during a lay-over. I’m still a bit wary though….I like being provided a nice distraction. But for the love of god don’t bore me with overpriced garbage that I have no need for. I can go to Wally Mart for that. I like the idea of having a used book store with a couple of over-stuffed chairs.

  33. WindowSeat says:

    @JustAGuy2: Schiphol is an airport? I was there Thursday morning and I wondered what all the planes were doing in the Mall’s parking lot.

  34. dohtem says:

    MSP (Minneapolis-St Paul Airport) is guilty of this. I remember the first time I had a connecting flight there and I had to walk from one concourse to the other. I remember thinking to myself, “these people actually put a freakin’ airport in their mall!?” Proof? Go to their website and click the “view all” button, under “Lindbergh Terminal” to see. Everything you could ever want is there.

    I bet you the local high school kids go kick it at the airport!

  35. dohtem says:

    @mopar_man: When you have a 7 hour layover, you give up and buy anything to make life less miserable.

  36. LearningForever says:

    I think the airports in our country are very out of date in terms of its shopping. They are mostly overpriced branded stores that are sad in appeal. I did a stop over at Singapore Changi airport and was pleasantly surprised to find decent affordable food with tons of variety in its shopping too. The stores present also distracted me from the long stop over. When the plane stopped in Tokyo Narita airport, the experience there was also wonderful.

    I find our JFK, O’Hare, LAX sadly lacking when compared to these airports.

    When I came home, my friends told me that in Europe, the airports there also offers affordable interesting distraction. I have not been there, but if that is true, shouldn’t we improve our airports and make them more appealing and interesting?

  37. EtherealStrife says:

    Hey hey don’t knock it. Back when Hurricane Dennis struck (2005) I was stranded at Sangster International (Montego Bay). I wouldn’t have survived without the in-terminal mall, half of which exclusively sold liquor. Stoli was cheaper than bottled water. . . .
    The food selection wasn’t great, but it was better than anything you could find in the early 90’s at an airport.

    The malls really are useful in emergency situations. I even found some inexpensive clothing to wear on the flight back, since all the stuff I’d brought was sweat soaked and filthy (90’s, tropical humidity, no AC).

  38. Trackback says:

    Inside the Soho Apple Store. Photo via JKonig/Racked Flickr Pool Local · Brownstoner to open flea market in Fort Greene [Brownstoner] · Is the shuttering of grocery stores bad for NYCers?

  39. Catperson says:

    Yeah, I agree that this has been going on for a while. The only time I ever flew was pre-911 and the Narita airport was just like a mall, as was the Bangkok airport.

  40. jamesdenver says:

    @GeneralLeigh:

    I use earplugs and a good book for that. And I don’t arrive trashed and hungover.

  41. kc-guy says:

    MCI in Kansas City is about the worst airport in the country to be stuck in.

    But it’s so worth it.

    You can park, walk no more than a hundred feet, and go directly to the gate. That includes TSA. It was 75 feet before that.

    Excluding the obligatory Starbuck’s and McDonald’s there is hardly a restaurant in the place…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  42. synergy says:

    @kc-guy: Ditto. I don’t know what people pack in their carry-ons if they don’t have some of the essentials in there. I always carry a backpack with a couple of books or a book and some magazines, a change of clothes in case I get separated from my luggage, and some food. What else do you need?!

  43. SexCpotatoes says:

    And our next news story for today, “Are airport chain stores inflating retail prices in local zip codes to jack up prices for everyone?” Film at 11.

  44. sassenach says:

    I’m for anything that offers an opportunity to pass the time while stuck in a airport–even if I don’t buy anything.

  45. neithernor says:

    I carry books with me, but for long delays airport bookstores have saved me from going around the bend. Barbara’s Bestsellers in the Philadelphia Airport was especially good to me during a 6-hour delay — the clerk really knew her stuff.

  46. Justinh6 says:

    Its a situation where you are stuck there, and you are hungry or thirsty, so you will buy their stuff. Especially since the TSA doesn’t allow you to bring drinks through security.

    $3.99 for a bottle of snapple at a shop in the Las Vegas airport. No thanks I’ll pass.

    I passed on the $10.99 BK Value meal for 2 egg-muffin sandwiches, and a medium coffee.

    Every airport I have been at in the United States is littered with very expensive garb . I wonder if anyone is actually buying it.

  47. curiouser says:

    @Snakeophelia:

    I used to work at that used book store in the RDU airport! I think it was in 1994 and again in 1998. That was before Borders or Barnes & Noble were in many airports, and people were incredibly thankful to be able to buy books beyond the best sellers. Combine that with the enforced politeness of airline employees, and the joy the people were actually looking for Classics (and poetry!) and the job actually left me feeling better about humanity. Try finding that in your average retail job.

    I flew out of RDU recently, and the Book Seller is still there, and it’s still great.