Ahead of NYRIW panel New Destinations For Airport Retail, the VP of FRCH Design Worldwide, maker of experiences for brands from Simon to American Girl, gives her take on the future of airport retail design

Brands are increasingly realizing the retail opportunity that exists within the average airport. Travelers, perhaps waiting for take-off or between flights, make for a captive audience, and are often open to unique retail experiences beyond the traditional duty-free shop.

FRCH Design Worldwide is a strategic design and architectural firm that creates experiences for retail. With clients including American Girl, Saks Fifth Avenue, Simon Malls and Hilton, FRCH is an established authority on speciality retail design. As part of New York Retail Innovation Week, VP and Creative Managing Director, Robyn Novak will join a conversation on New Destinations For Airport Retail, on January 15.

PSFK spoke to Novak for her insight on physical retail design and trends for the future of airport retail.

Could you describe any travel retail design trends you’ve noticed, and explain how you’re leveraging them in the work that you do?

As a designer, I travel a lot, so I’m seeing how retailers are bringing their brands to life in airport environments almost as much, if not more, than I’m seeing them in traditional shopping formats—and I’m not alone in this. With a concentrated flow of foot traffic, airport retailers have an opportunity to create a memorable impact on a global audience, that they may never get online or in a traditional mall setting.

Three trends I’m seeing overall that are taking advantage of this captive audience include the following:

Authentically Local: Consumers are traveling with a desire to experience cultures different from their own. Airports and travel retailers have the opportunity to use this desire to their advantage and offer unique experiences that immerse travelers in the country both at arrival and departure. Locations that offer products and partnerships to create a sense of place and cultural appreciation set the bar high with exclusive experiences that leave visitors craving more.

Creating An Ecosystem: No longer stuck behind security checkpoints or confined to traditional footprints, airports of the future must become more functional, efficient and develop exciting destinations that travelers look forward to visiting. Unlike struggling malls, airports have a constant source of potential shoppers, so the focus will shift from making money from airlines to making money from passengers through commercial revenue. Look to create engagement with unique retail, dining, hospitality and leisure experiences.

Adaptive Environments: Today, smartphones are being carried by over 98% of airline passengers. This reliance provides proactive brands with a unique opportunity to utilize adaptive technology to create a more engaging and customized experience for travelers.

Airports can create dynamic experiences through environments that adapt to the customer mood, flight schedule, location—and even weather. Brands using beacons could push sale notifications to those customers in the terminal that are experiencing flight delays. Virtual shopping walls could adjust merchandise dependent upon the surrounding traveler destinations. Pop-up experiences could create in-the-moment brand connections while providing fluidity in relevant offerings.

Liverpool Duty Free, by Christian Dohn

Are there any unmet consumer needs within travel retail that you’ve noticed, or any opportunities for retailers to meet them?

From subscription-based meal kits to digital stylists, the concept of retailers proactively offering customers a solution they didn’t even know they needed is a trend that consumers will expect to see in the travel market in the coming years. Consumers will look for brands to make packing easier and traveling more efficient, opening up an opportunity for retailers like Rent the Runway or Le Tote to make occasion-based rentals (for that destination wedding or work conference) as easy as grabbing your suitcase at baggage claim. Late-night travelers could grab ready-made dinners or forgotten toiletries from a small-format Kroger or Target.

Could you describe a specific travel experience FRCH has helped retailers enable?

Historically FRCH has worked with various duty-free and airport travel retailers creating and implementing retail experiences centered around destination shopping and premium merchandise. What excites me most today is the current level of innovative thinking that is being desired from both the brands and the consumer within airport retail.

What this enables us to do is push the bar on defining travel retail, no longer just about convenience of offer, but about transcending one’s expectations around premium brands, products, services and experiences. Our clients today are open to exploring immersive technologies, pop-up formats, customization offerings and even next-level thinking with regards to services.

Liverpool Duty Free, by Christian Dohn

Could you share your insights into what consumers want out of travel experiences today, and of retail more broadly? How do you help retailers better engage with customers?

Airports should act as portals to their unique destinations—allow travelers a preview into the culture, traditions and attractions of the region. Retailers can play a key role in bringing this experience to life for travelers, whether they plan to visit that destination or are simply passing through. Retailers must ask themselves how they can help immerse travelers, offer them a unique experience they can’t engage with anywhere else.

One trend PSFK has noticed is premium or luxury brands that in the past might have avoided associating with airports now looking to tap the captive traveler demographic. Is this something you’ve noticed? What types of brands are looking to you to design travel retail experiences and stores?

With luxury airline travel growing 12% in the last year (compared to just 5% increase for non-luxury airline spend), the opportunity to cater to luxury travelers is greater than ever before.

With historic volume around the world, the focus needs to shift from making money from airlines, to making money from passengers, in terms of commercial revenue, through more engagement with unique retail, dining, hospitality and leisure experiences. There’s been a renewed focus on an elevated travel experience, and luxury retailers in particular need to focus more on creating compelling environments with elevated offerings to capture their attention and to convert travelers to loyal customers.

In general, we’ve seen a shift in today’s consumers valuing experience over product, and that trend transcends the luxury market. Consumers are willing spend more if an experience is presented as authentic, unique, or exclusive—and travel is one of the best examples of this trend. Luxury travel retailers have the opportunity to use this desire to their advantage and create unique experiences, offerings and partnerships that create a sense of place and cultural appreciation, leaving visitors coming back for more.

Another trend we’re seeing in luxury is the rise of millennial spending. No longer the young generation, these consumers are established and are growing their luxury spend at the fastest rate. This group of consumers is looking for specialized items over classic products.

As the heightened awareness around wellness continues to grow, so does the elevated experience within the luxury market. No longer just about being fit, brands that leverage overall wellness, including mental and spiritual wellness, are able to enhance their customer’s overall experience. Mediation rooms, sleep pods and elevated spa offerings are becoming more common in today’s airports. Brands like Roam Fitness allow on-the-go travelers to fit in a workout around their flight schedule. Indoor tracks, rooftop gardens, terminal step counts and yoga rooms are all ways to embrace this healthy initiative.

Liverpool Duty Free, by Christian Dohn

With the rise of ecommerce, we see retailers increasingly look to design immersive, interactive store experiences that offer what digital can’t as of yet. How do you help brick-and-mortar retailers compete with the convenience of online shopping, perhaps through technological integrations, or using consumer data to inform design?

I strongly believe that consumer insights lead to strategic design solutions. Today’s consumer is fickle, changing at a whim based upon social media influences and shifting trends. While the consumer may not always be able to verbalize “exactly what they want,” they provide plenty of insights as to their desires, which inform opportunities.

Leveraging those insights and opportunities leads FRCH to create relevant and grounded design solutions regardless of channel: bricks and mortar, or online. Sometimes the solutions are technology-led, potentially carrying over the customer’s initial engagement online, and sometimes the solutions are immersive, engaging and hands-on because the desire is for exactly that, something tangible, sensory and physically connecting.

What do you hope to share at the New Destinations in Travel Retail panel during NYRIW?

Airports are one of the few environments where retailers have the ability to reach a captive, global audience—so they must adapt to find ways to bring their brands to life within a limited footprint, to make a lasting connection with potential customers. It is an exciting time for travel retail, one that is ripe for disruption.

Where do you think the world of retail design will head next?

New opportunities will arise to drive deep connections with consumers on their terms. Progressive brands are on the forefront of this shift, creating retail experiences that will continue to evolve. Now is the time for brands to act confidently, transcend expectations and empower ambassadors to make their mark on retail.

I’d like to see brands and retailers challenge themselves to rethink their global imprint. I think we are just on the brink of the potential with regards to customization, local connectivity and sustainability. I think possibilities exist to imagine a retail future where products are made locally, in-store, personalized for customers with a level of seamless service (digital and physical) we have yet to see.

FRCH Design Worldwide

For more, come see FRCH's Robyn Novak alongside speakers from New Stand and ROAM Fitness to hear how they are influencing a new era of travel retail, at the New Destinations For Airport Retail panel on January 15. Tickets available now!