The good, the bad and the ugly

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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A quick return trip from London to Madrid the other day offered interesting contrasts between some of the stores in London Heathrow T1 and Madrid Barajas T4.

Generally Heathrow and Madrid count among the better exponents of airport retailing but my experiences last week showed that our sector can get it badly wrong as well as thrillingly right.

Let’s start with the Chocolate Box outlet at Heathrow T1, run by The Nuance Group. I have lauded the praises of this specialist confectionery store concept in the past but I was less than impressed on this occasion.

The Chocolate Box concept dates back to 1992, when it was first inaugurated at Heathrow T4. The T1 execution was rolled out as recently as June 2005, when it was described as “fresh and contemporary” with “modern and futuristic” designs.

Sadly the current store was, frankly, a mess during my visit. Bottles of Highland Spring mineral water were dump stacked by the cash point, price messages dominated the shop, and some of the metal shelving looked as if it belonged in a hardware store.

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In defense of the retailer, the shape of the shop doesn’t help – there’s a nasty, cramped alley jutting out from the back of the store that contains various countlines and which does little more than beckon you towards the (conspicuous) fire exit. Ugly in the extreme.

Fine chocolate – and the store has plenty of it – deserves tender loving care if the category is to truly exploit its potential. Sorry, but it simply doesn’t get it here.

Nuance does the category well in plenty of its international locations but it has lost its way here. This store was described as “the third generation” Chocolate Box when it was rolled out in 2005. To be fair, I’ve seen it on much better days – as the photo shows it was being stocked during my visit – but on this evidence generation four is well overdue.

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Next stop was World of Whiskies, the BAA-run specialist store that is said to stock over 300 whiskies from around the globe. Now this is what I call specialist retailing – a nice open store, where the product is the hero and there’s hardly a price message in sight.

In fact the only jarring note is the “Two for £30” offer on Dewars 12yo at the entance, which simply doesn’t sit with the rest of the offer and isn’t necessary anyway.

Sometimes the little things make a difference. Note the body language of the sales assistant in both our shots. In one his head is cocked gently to one side as he listens intently to a female customer; in the second, below, (and it happened in front of my eyes) he has hurried over to assist two male travellers who were unsure what to buy.

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Instead of being allowed to leave the store they were turned into customers – it’s what the retail analysts call ‘store penetration’ but sometimes it’s simply about talking to your consumer.

Note also the excellent segmentation of the offer – Fine & Rare, Gifts, Highlands, Islands, Islay and Speyside. Throw in a decent smattering of Irish, American, Canadian and other whiskies and you know why whisky aficionados love visiting this store.

Travel retail loves to use acronyms – LAGs, STEBs etc. World of Whiskies has one too, and richly deserves it – WOW.

Just a few yards away stands The Cigar House, another supremely good example of how to merchandise and sell a premium category.

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I am never disappointed either by the range or (especially) by the service in this store. There’s a gloriously diverse range of Habanos as well as great cigars from other countries such as Dominican Republic, a small but elegant walk-in humidor and a good mix of accessories.

And so… from the bad to the good… to the ugly. Hamleys is one of the world’s greatest names in toys and games. The mere suggestion of a visit to the London flagship store sends my young children into whoops of delight. So what has gone wrong here?

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Founder William Hamley must be turning in his grave. The Cornishman dreamed of running the best toy shop in the world, and in 1760 he did, cramming what was described as a ‘Noah’s ark’ emporium with every kind of toy.

The store has survived good times and bad since, even managing to withstand being bombed five times during the World War Two blitz of London.

In our view, it’s currently under attack again, but this time it’s the reputation rather than the structure that’s at risk.

Like the Chocolate Box, the Hamleys store isn’t helped by its space constraints, a long, narrow shop divided into two sections by a bulky row of shelves down the centre.

But no-one can blame the store’s shape or size for its mediocrity. Next time you’re in Cannes for the TFWA World Exhibition stroll around the streets behind the Palais and into a couple of the little toy shops such as En Sortant de L’Ecole.

There’s more space in the average telephone kiosk than in some of these stores but they’re a delight to shop, packed with toys, music boxes and games that span the generations – as much fun for adults as for kids.

At the Heathrow outlet, if you can avoid the intensely irritating flying pig and cow at the entrance – if you’re over 6 feet tall you’d be well-advised to take out insurance – you are confronted by the cheapest of posters supposedly telling ‘The Story of Hamleys’, which does nothing of the sort. 

Inside the store, stuck on to the end of a shelving unit that looks as though it may have survived one of those Blitz attacks, there’s another drab, utilitarian poster that says ‘Need help? Ask our toy experts?’

Who, the totally bored single shop assistant?

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BAA does so many things right with retailing that I’m suprised they’ve allowed this one to go so badly wrong. It’s an abjectly poor representation of the original ‘High Street comes to Heathrow’ adage famously coined by long-time Retail Director Barry Gibson in the early 1990s and so well carried on by his successors.

Talking strictly as a consumer – and as a regular buyer of toys during overseas trips – pigs might fly before I would spend in this shop. Oh that’s right, they already do.

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My final ‘visit to the specialist’ was to the Thinking Espana destination merchandise store at Barajas. Along with toys, destination merchandise is one of the worst-executed categories in travel retail. Apart from the magnificent exceptions of Out of Africa in Johannesberg and Cape Town, the wonderfully eclectic Cafe Britt in Lima, the impressively diverse Auckland Airport offer, Hudson News in Vancouver, and Toronto’s Tastefully Canadian, it’s hard to think of too many examples of really top class retail that convey a true ‘Sense of Place’.

Aldeasa, though, is trying hard with its ‘Thinking …..’ concept (Thinking Espana in Madrid, Thinking Vancouver in Canada and so on). The Barajas T4 stores are packed with product, and alive with the tastes, traditions, crafts and cultures of Spain.

There’s a good range of price points from lower end (but decent quality) souvenirs to higher-priced accessories, foodstuffs and fashion.

I bought some great ham and chorizo, an Aldeasa-published book of Spanish recipes, some nice Manchega cheese and a couple of souvenirs for the kids and didn’t regret a single Euro of a decent-sized spend.

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‘Thinking ….’ is a clever concept, that by definition can be adapted to each of Aldeasa’s locations around the world. If they can get it as right abroad as they do at home, the airport retail scene will be a better place for it.

So there you have it, the good, the bad and the ugly of airport specialist retailing. I wonder what Sergio Leone would have made of it?

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  • Dear Sir, Congratulations on your surprisingly honest blog re the standards of some of the retail outlets you passed through recently.

    I also concur that the Chocolate Box T1 outlet is dreadfully dull and uninspiring regardless of whether it is being merchandised or not.

    I hope that Nuance will appreciate your feedback and that it might inspire them to get it right….as opposed to the usual Travel Retail reaction of taking offence at any comment that might not be positively fawning!

    Yours sincerely,

    DJ