Print takes flight

Do they really, really, think that all people want are luxury bags, sunglasses and whisky?
Image of Tyler Brûlé

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What do you think?

Here’s a bit of an odd question for a weekend morning. How good are you at doing sound effects? I’m not talking bird calls or DJ beats into an imaginary mic, I’m thinking more like the deep gongs you hear at Zurich airport, or that funny flourish and jingle that goes off every 15 seconds at Charles de Gaulle. If you know what I’m talking about, then make the airport PA sound in the back of your throat and read the following under your breath: “Attention, attention. This is a special announcement for airport management. Attention, attention. This is a special announcement for airport management. Your passengers are about to start an uprising over your short-sighted retail measures and you need to immediately chart a new course. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. You need to come up with a more compelling offer for high-spending but generally bored passengers immediately.”

This message shouldn’t just be directed at airport management (who are only trying to make a living by charging for landing, parking and fuelling planes) but also the companies they assign to run shops and food outlets at various hubs and regional sheds around the world. With so many legacy carriers still trying to figure out how to make money in a volatile world and many discount carriers also struggling to make a go of it, airports are trying to find new revenue streams by expanding their service offers while also trying to squeeze as much rent as possible from the vendors that crowd concourses.

Several weeks ago while passing through Singapore, someone who has heavily invested in the airport retail game explained the sorry situation that is affecting terminals around the world. Over an iced tea in an over-air-conditioned hotel lobby, he said that it’s no longer about providing the basics mixed with a few luxury add-ons. Now, it’s about attracting the best premium retail with little room for finding a place that might sell batteries or a decent notebook. “The biggest loser in all of this is going to be the bookshops and kiosks,” said the grim-faced gentleman. “Someone has sold all of these airports on the idea that everyone is now reading things on a Kindle or an iPad and kiosks have no future at airports.”

At this point I could feel my body temperature start to rise. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” I said. “Do they really, really think that all people want are luxury bags, sunglasses and the same whisky they can find for $5 more at their local store? Has someone explained to them that the tablet miracle isn’t going as many media companies had hoped, and that the reason people aren’t buying magazines and books at airports is because it’s a generally dreadful experience?”

The following day I flew out of Singapore’s Changi airport and was happy to see that all seemed well at one of the newsstands I frequent. There were plenty of people darting in who seemed to know exactly the titles they wanted and didn’t linger – and there were just as many lingering among the stacks passing time and possibly contemplating a purchase.

As I walked to the gate, something else the airport retail expert said was ringing in my ears: “If an airport operator can’t make proper margins, then we’ll likely see many businesses disappear.” While I’m all for the market having its way (most of the time), I do think airports also provide an essential service and this spirit needs to be carried out through the entire experience. One could argue that lavatories don’t generate a lot of revenue so there should be fewer of those, or that security is expensive, so maybe just one X-ray machine for 30m passengers a year will do the trick if they all come two days, rather than two hours, before their flights.

By the time I was back in Europe, it seemed that the predictions were already coming true. At Frankfurt airport there were two shuttered kiosks in a concourse packed with luxury brands. Were they under renovation? There was no sign indicating they’d be reopening any time soon. I asked a man working on behalf of Lufthansa if there was a kiosk close by and he apologised and said he didn’t know what was happening. “The only solution is to go back out through passport control to another zone and then come back, but I think it’ll involve going through security,” he explained. “It’s strange – it’s the question I get asked the most these days. Where can I buy a book or some magazines?”

The short-sighted narrative that we are all moving away from paper and will be consuming everything on electronic devices needs to stop. Consumers still want to buy print media. They just want it served in an environment as well-maintained as a branch of Hermès.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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