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Airport retailers bent on getting most out of captive shoppers

By Shan Li, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Cafeteria. Camping ground. Transportation hub. Travelers know that airports can take on many identities.

Now, around the country, they are taking on a new role — as classy shopping complexes, not just endless strips of newsstands, souvenir shops and fast-food outlets tucked between departure gates.

Los Angeles International Airport plans to open a slew of new shops this year, including one by upscale L.A. boutique chain Kitson. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is building a mini-mall anchored by Juicy Couture, Guess and Hugo Boss. On the East Coast, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has welcomed lingerie maker Victoria’s Secret.

The emergence of airports as full-on shopping centers got its initial boost after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which drastically increased the time most people spend at airports.

And since then, retailers have increasingly seen airport terminals as captive markets for far more than souvenirs, sandwiches, paperback novels and “I (heart) LA” T-shirts.

“Airports are trying to match up the demographics of their passengers” with the stores they open, said Bruce Boudreau, director of airport consulting firm LeighFisher in Burlingame, Calif.

“In a place with more business travelers, you’re more likely to see electronics shops. In a place with more tourists, you’re more likely to see toy stores. (In) places with an affluent clientele, more international travelers, you’ll have more duty-free shops.”

In the past five years, as long-held leases expire on airport stores, many retail spaces are being retooled to cater more specifically to women, children, tech lovers and other shoppers once overlooked.

Airports also are looking to offer a local feel to what used to seem like a sterile walk down Anytown, USA, by inviting local brands to bring a little of the city’s soul inside to passing travelers.

Stores targeting business travelers, such as high-end clothier Brooks Bros., are expanding their airport shops, while women’s clothes and beauty chains, such as Kiehl’s and Mango, have opened more terminal locations.

And airports have their eye on traveling youngsters as well. Orlando International Airport in Florida opened a Build-a-Bear Workshop in April. At its do-it-yourself stations in the store, children can while away an hour or more stuffing, sewing and dressing plush animals for $10 and up.

The ultimate goal for retailers: to pry more dollars from harried travelers.

At LAX, a multiyear expansion has begun to add a fresh crop of retailers that reflect L.A.’s reputation as a “taste-making city,” said Laura Samuels, a spokeswoman for Hudson Group, which operates many retail and food spaces at airports.

In April, Los Angeles celebrity-favorite Kitson is slated to open its first airport store at LAX.

At 1,300 square feet — a fraction of the size of a standard Kitson — there’s no space for a changing room. The shop will instead carry a greater mix of books and “funky” travel accessories, along with easy-to-try-on apparel such as sweat shirts, said owner Fraser Ross.

He said the store would emphasize gift items under $100.

“Husbands can get things for their wives there, and she’ll be surprised,” Ross said. “It won’t look like you bought it at the airport, like you were in San Francisco and came home with a model streetcar.”

But not every retailer is a fan of airports.

Ed Hardy, a Los Angeles street-wear brand, decided not to pursue an LAX store after failing to reach a compromise with Hudson Group.

“There’s a lot of political vying on a lot of things in the airport world,” said Caleb Westbay, Ed Hardy’s vice president of sales. “It’s a complicated thing. There’s a lot of red tape.”

For retailers, airports offer “a captive audience in today’s post-9/11 world,” said Gerry Cecci, vice president of airport management at mall operator Westfield.

Once someone clears security, wait time — or “dwell time” in airport-speak — can stretch beyond an hour, he said.

The U.S. is still trying to catch up to cities such as Dubai and Hong Kong, which have airports that are fashion destinations to rival any high-end shopping center, industry experts say.

However, American airports tend to be hobbled by age — many were built before retailing became popular. But renovations and expansions have increased retail space by 20 percent over the last eight years, Boudreau said.

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