Is airport retail digital transformation just another example of “Shiny-Object Syndrome”?
The high street retail environment has changed out of all proportions in recent years with major stalwarts like Debenhams and House of Fraser going out of business, challenged by the allure, simplicity, and low prices of online competitors such as Amazon. Airport retailers and duty-free operators face similar challenges as online sellers make the once attractive airport shopping offer less appealing. Digital transformation of the shopping experience at airports may offer the means to improve sales penetration, enhance customer experience and reduce costs for operators.
Going digital appears to be the strategy of choice for airports and duty-free operators. But despite advances in smart technologies and the wholesale adoption of digital transformation strategies, airports still seem to lag behind, at least in terms of retail operations. Some might blame it on a struggle to keep up with the pace of technological development, while others argue that the highly regulated, risk averse nature of the airport industry has inhibited sustained and successful transformation. The second argument is supported with the fact that advanced technologies are being successfully deployed by e-commerce giants such as WeChat, Amazon, and Alibaba, where robots handle orders and one-click omni-channel shopping is offered to their customers. “Amazon Go”, for example, using the most advanced retail technology based around a “no queue no check-out grab and go” concept offers an appealing proposition to customers. This compares to the airport travel retail proposition which retains a large retail footprint of “stock on show” shopping (especially for duty-free) with few advanced fulfilment technologies.
If digital transformation is as simple as deploying new technologies, then one could argue that most companies would have succeeded by now. However, digital transformation represents a significant organizational change that includes people, processes, culture, and technology. The word digital may give a slightly misleading impression that the emphasis of the transformation is essentially on the technology. Technology, however, is probably the least complicated element in digital transformation. The word digital might also indicate that any “transformation” is achieved in as short as two weeks (digital sprint), again if it was this simple, we would not be here today. In fact, making major changes may be neither practical nor feasible in a 24/7 airport operation.
In some countries such as China, 80% of luxury shopping referred to as “Daigou Shopping” is a good motivation for retailers to operate in airports as price savings to consumers can be very high. On the other side of the spectrum, airports in Europe do not enjoy the same price advantages. To add to this complexity, travel retail has to function in an environment with data protection rules, privacy regulations, supply-chain constraints and concession agreements perhaps making airport digital transformation ambitions less attainable. Having said that, luxury brands continue to open physical stores at airports, for example Cartier and Bulgari recently announced new boutique stores at Dubai, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, and London Heathrow. These are examples of brands that have strong digital shopping propositions that still value the airport travel retail channel. With digitalisation, airports are required to become service providers which is in contrast to their traditional role as infrastructure landlords. Examples of this include Schiphol Airport, which in the context of their own retail digital transformation strategy claims to act as an “orchestrator” while Changi Airport, aims to offer “unforgettable travel experiences” through their digital strategy. These are a few examples of how some airports and their partners are developing unique or value-added travel retail propositions to their customers.
But it needs to be appreciated and understood that airport retail digital transformation is not the sole responsibility of one organisation since there are several stakeholders involved with the principal ones being: the airport, retail operator and the brands. This raises even more interesting questions as to who owns retail digital transformation? To what extent do existing contractual models built largely around traditional concession agreements facilitate or inhibit successful digital transformation? Can airports open up their ecosystems for other digital companies to accelerate the process? Do joint ventures, a model growing in popularity and pioneered largely by Aéroports de Paris, offer a better framework for digital transformation or are vertically integrated airport operators that directly manage their duty-free business better placed to reap the benefits offered by digitalisation?
These are the questions that form the heart of my research here at Cranfield University and in order to gain further insights into the airport digital transformation, I am looking to interview professionals across the European travel retail industry (airports, retail operators or consultants) who have particular views around digital strategy, digital transformation, culture and business model (contracts). If you feel that you would like to take part in a 1-hour online interview, please complete the short form. Alternatively, you are also more than welcome to contact me directly via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through LinkedIn.
 where a Daigou shopper purchases the desired goods overseas, after which they post their goods home or carry them in their luggage on their return
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