Interview with John Michael (first featured in DFNI's GTR Digital Innovation Report)
Designing spaces for digital travellers
There’s a reason Singapore‘s Changi is consistently voted the best international airport in the world — thanks to its combination of world-class retail and innovative leisure experiences, set in a spectacular landscape (and positioned landside, so it becomes a landmark destination for locals as well as travellers).
DESIGNING SPACES FOR A DIGITAL AGE OF TRAVEL
The view of retail design specialist agency, HMKM is that storytelling in the retail environment is paramount and that it is amplified through digital touchpoints in-store. The agency’s associate director, John-Michael O’Sullivan says interaction with the passenger will be key to change up the airport retail experience.
“There are a host of factors that combine to create a great airport experience, from streamlined, well-thought-out passenger processes to culturally relevant dining offers and memorably-designed environments,” he says.
The USP of airports is local culture, or hubs that thrive on entertainment, says O’Sullivan. “Austin Bergstrom is one of the best US airports, thanks to a programme of regular live music events, and a food line-up that celebrates the city’s vibrant food truck culture. Or take San Francisco International, where three of the city’s best-loved chefs have combined to create a food hall with a distinctive local flavour. Or the iconic TWA terminal at JFK, now reborn as a stunning airport hotel complete with pop-ups from innovative retail brands Shinola and Warby Parker as part of the offer, plus a cocktail bar set inside a vintage Lockheed Constellation plane.”
What these airports share is an imaginative, innovative approach to the passenger journey, he says. “It’s a journey that maximises convenience 139and customer ease, but which also recognises the potential of the airport itself as a destination in its own right. As the logistical aspects of travel become ever more efficient, airports can all too easily fall into adopting a cookie-cutter approach. But what the best operators are doing is seizing the opportunity to integrate powerful one-of-a-kind customer experiences into the journey — whether that’s imaginative dining concepts, intelligent service offers, or innovative retail destinations. And what’s clear, as passenger numbers continue to rise across the globe, is that the race to lead in travel experience has never been so intense.”
For synergies across the domestic and travel retail channels, O’Sullivan says it’s key to look at how the consumer begins their understanding of the brand online, which is then translated through to a travel retail environment. “We’ve been working with philanthropic online retailer Olivela to create their first physical stores. Digital touchpoints have been incorporated into the experience in a clear yet relaxed way, from interactive displays which expand on the stories behind each product, to focal walls which communicate the difference each purchase makes to the communities and causes Olivela supports. For HMKM, this comes back to the key roles of storytelling and customer connection play within the retail experience – elements which all too often get lost in the sheer size and scale of the airport experience.”
Canvasing opinion among the retail design community, it’s clear there’s a sense that there’s not much newness happening (within airport retail design) to bring about the much-needed transformation of physical to digital with consumer shopping behaviour. The common theme is that store environments for the GTR channel need to change to cater for the digital passenger.
Brands and retailers need to work together to find ways to create passenger journeys that are dedicated to creating more data-centric touchpoints. It’s time for a sea change among retail designers and recognition that the consumer is now dictating those interaction points.
The acquisition of passenger data is a common goal. With this in mind, agencies agree there is a need for a more integrated approach to mixing e-commerce into travel retail spaces – for example London Heathrow or Frankfurt Airports’ online offer have started to do this.
Future store design solutions will incorporate a unified customer journey in mind. There’s more interaction needed from everyone in the travel retail process – before, during, after purchase – from online partners such as Ctrip or Booking.com that target Chinese passengers from the beginning of their journey plans.
Change has been happening over the last few years, with digital improvements in key locations, say experts that specialise in airport design. There has been a sea-change from the likes of Nuance (now owned by Dufry) and Aer Rianta over their approach to digitised briefs. For example, Dufry has changed its viewpoint around digital screens or ‘contentainment’ and have more recently, updated screens for brand campaigns that used to sit at the end of gondolas in-store to an entire digitally-driven atmosphere.
In the last five years retailers such as Dufry/World Duty Free have invested in rolling out contentainment executions – across multiple screens - at airports such as Zurich and Heathrow. This kind of itinerant digital strategy could give them the flexibility to change the whole feel and ambience of a space, in order to change the mood as and when necessary - even by the hour if necessary. However, consumers are now bombarded by branded content from multiple digital channels and passengers expect this level of content in an airport environment.
A newer approach within major airport retail hub is location-specific digital ribbons that sit above the eyeline. They present both an opportunity and a challenge, say designers.
A linear digital line that sits just above the main walkway delivers new content to passengers, but can be distracting. It can be a challenge for 140brands to deliver bespoke content due to the requirement that messaging needs to be dedicated to that location.
In contrast, a vertical ribbon – something that works for the environment – can split up airport areas, duty free or F&B for example to help passengers navigate their way around the space. Dufry’s Cancun store is a good example; it has high ceilings and volume of space opens up the possibilities for branded or placemaking markers. Instead of a psychological horizontal barrier, the fundamental shift to vertical allows designers to play with the space. In Cancun, the airport was able to harness the signage opportunities as beacons meaning it could play to the destination’s tequila heritage.
MIXED REALITY TESTBEDS
Using mixed realities technology is another area for digital innovation, as agencies say it improves their concept design sign off process via 3D or virtual reality software. Agencies and retailers alike are increasingly experimenting with augmented reality (AR) in the retail space. Magic mirrors in the travel retail beauty category have been working well with brands such as Shiseido, L’Oréaland Sephora all taking the stance that by putting technology in the hands of the customer, they can have a more personalised shopping experience.
Getting people to engage by trying something on virtually is great for brands to have a deeper conversation, especially for products such as lipsticks or eyeshadows and especially sunglasses.
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