What’s the deal with airport-themed retail?

Aug 24, 2016

What’s the attraction of airports as a retail design theme? GDR’s Martin Reid wonders if brands really think that the sky’s the limit.

As our consultants take to the skies to see our clients across the USA and Asia, and as everyone in the office takes leave for their Summer holidays, it has got me thinking about why more and more stores and restaurants are using aviation as a design theme to communicate their products and their brand identity.

Tapping into the common desire to travel has long been a familiar theme for retailers trying to connect with their customers. Beyond simply opening outlets at airports, retailers have always invented retail concepts centred on curating goods that are perfect for the next big trip.

London menswear brand Hackett shows how stylish men travel in Regents Street store window

London menswear brand Hackett imagines travelling in style in Regents Street store window

For example, MUJI To Go in central Tokyo offers everything a customer could want and carry for their next trip, from luggage to travel-size containers. Although it’s known for selling luggage, the recently opened Away pop-up in New York also has an extra dimension, with two separate store entrances that lead to products themed around two different travel destinations – Stockholm and Tokyo. Travel equipment and other products typically found and sold in these cities inspire customers to consider these locations for their next holiday. And, at a more obvious micro-level, chemists, such as Boots, dedicate aisle space to travel-sized packaged goods and other products connected with going on one’s holidays.

New York concept store Away

New York concept store Away

But it seems that this year, more brands are using the theme of airports as a technique to show off their products, even if the connection is a far stretch from their original brand – and often when it’s nothing to do with the holiday seasons.


This year’s rise of airport-themed retail kickstarted with Chanel’s catwalk for Spring 2016. Evolving from 2015’s theme of supermarkets, Paris’s Grand Palais was transformed into an airport for Chanel Airlines, featuring check-in desks, branded luggage carts and male models playing the role of airport staff. Emerging behind the Perspex screens for departures, Karl Lagerfeld’s jet-setting models stomped the sterile white runway while toting their carry-on luggage.

Meanwhile, in Canada and the US, Nike rolled out its aviation-themed pop-ups for its Nike+ members during the annual NBA All-Star Weekend. On entering the pop-up, visitors were handed boarding passes for assigned seats in cabins, and watched a 20-minute parody in-flight safety video, before being free to explore the store’s range of sneakers.

The Clearport

The Clearport- who doesn’t want to relive going through airport security?

The expression of these travel rituals reached its peak with The Clearport, a streetwear concept store that models its customer experience against the familiar journey of going through an airport from arrivals to customs before boarding your flight. On entering the store, customers can see on departure boards which brands have come in and which brands have sold out. Signage directs shoppers into the main space, where they can browse clothes divided by terminals – or shelving of menswear, kidswear and womenswear – and they can have their selfie taken in a TSA body scanner.

Related content: Why does all hospitality design look the same? 

The Clearport takes this theme to the extreme, and it’s interesting to note that its wares aren’t explicitly geared for travel. But do customers really value these sort of metaphors of experience? I asked The Clearport’s founder Haytham Elgawly why this idea is popular with today’s shoppers:

“I think it’s the notion of getting away, getting on this enormous steel machine, soaring through the sky, and arriving at something worth exploring. It’s a universal concept that everyone can relate to. Every demographic, every language, in every country. Everyone wants to get on an airplane and get away.”

“I wanted to create a place where people could “get fly”… what better place than an airport!”

I personally find flying and visiting airports as sources of stress and constriction rather than relaxation. But with many people, airports and airplanes symbolise something more inspiring. Therefore, there seems to be a logic to replicating the airport experience in retail. Even last week’s launch of Diptyque’s range of travel candles in London’s Boxpark, and Hackett’s store windows for its latest clothing range, both riff on airplanes and luggage in order to inspire and excite customers.

Diptyque opened an airline themed pop-up in London's Shoreditch this week

Diptyque opened an airline-themed pop-up in London’s Shoreditch

After all, according to Statista, travel and tourism contributed $7.17 trillion to the global economy last year. This ever-increasing figure is in no doubt fuelled by the rise of image-driven social media and e-commerce contributing to holiday inspiration. As the world gets smaller and as political and economic unrest is rising both at home and abroad, there’s never been a greater desire to get away…

But nobody quite takes the biscuit like The First Class, a chain of new healing cafes in South Korea that describes its outlets as rest-stops against the chaos of mall shopping. First Class aligns its range of relaxation services with the luxury and privileges associated with flying first class on airplanes, complete with fake airline branding. Customers step into private booths to enjoy body massages and don televisual headsets to escape the noise of the outside world. Patrons can enjoy a coffee (served on in-flight trays) and they can even enjoy printing their own images onto an ice cream or a latte.

Korean restaurant First Class

Korean restaurant First Class

Nevertheless, this design trend is indicative of the fact that shoppers privilege meaningful experiences from the stores that they visit. It’s not so much about what you sell, but being able to create a dream or an idea that customers can appreciate. And what better way to capture this than to promise the idea of jetting off to explore somewhere new?



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