​Airports at the Forefront of Retail Experience

On high streets, in shopping centres, and at transportation hubs, commercial environments are being reimagined to stay relevant to a new generation of demanding, tech-savvy consumers while embracing the opportunities presented by digital technology. Recent pandemics and geopolitical events have impacted airports more than most other types of buildings. While these were temporarily disastrous for the industry, the challenges airports have faced, the subsequent changes they have had to overcome, and the change this has accelerated will potentially bring them to the forefront of innovation in commercial environments.

These crises have highlighted the importance of flexibility and the need to readily adapt to changing passenger profiles, behaviours, and expectations. Furthermore, airports are uniquely positioned to embrace the future of retail. They have a captive and relatively affluent audience, access to passenger and consumer data, and the ability to understand passenger segmentation and forecast demand, so can therefore respond with an appropriate commercial strategy.

In this Insight Paper, Andrew Mackay and Mariia Grachova, from our Düsseldorf and Brussels studios provide a brief analysis of how Airports are leading the way in Retail Experience, and discuss the role of architects and designers in helping to shape these new commercial environments.

Innovations in the Passenger Journey

A key factor in ensuring commercial success in an airport is providing a stress-free journey. Airports are exploring ways to enhance the passenger experience at every stage of the journey, facilitated by digital technology. Travellers are no longer considered a homogeneous group, and their journey is no longer an oversimplified, predictable sequence of events. Technology, particularly in the hands of digital natives, is revolutionising the passenger experience, with travellers reaching for their smartphones at every turn.

Apps, whether provided by the airport or the airline, play a crucial role in achieving this. By offering up-to-the-minute information, such apps can alleviate travel stress, guide travellers in the right direction, and connect them with the airport's services and commercial offer.

Innovations aimed at creating a stress-free passenger experience include self-service check-in, virtual queuing apps, automated border control systems, advanced booking of security screening slots, and apps that track luggage. Additionally, there is a significant - albeit unseen by the average traveller - innovation in the increased use of IoT (Internet of Things) for airport operations. More and more airports are utilizing IoT technology to generate real-time traveller statistics, improve overall airport efficiency, and enhance the passenger journey. For example, optimising security queues based on real-time numbers. IoT can also provide personalised and targeted digital commercial offers and advertising based on live traveller statistics. A stress-free traveller, whose journey is simplified by such technological advances, is more likely to be receptive to an airport's commercial offer.

Retail Evolution

Traditional shopping habits are rapidly evolving, with in-person shopping being replaced by buying items from any device and having them delivered to any suitable location, such as a home, office, collection point, or even the boot of a car (roam delivery). The shopping experience is becoming more personalised and technology-driven, and physical retail is less about purchasing products and more about experiencing the brand. Many retailers are proposing virtual and augmented reality to attract customers and offer immersive experiences.

In the airport environment, user-friendly apps are being used for checking shop and dining options, wellness offers, and purchasing click-and-collect products. AI-powered chatbots are being employed to provide personalized retail and dining recommendations.

The Emergence of New Commercial Layouts

Advancements in technology and changes in consumer behaviour will lead to the emergence of new commercial strategies and layouts in airports. Key innovations include commercial touchpoints, the blending of seating and commercial areas, the provision of flexible units, and a diverse range of leisure offerings.

Commercial Touchpoints

Technological developments and changes in consumer behaviour have given rise to commercial touchpoints. They provide a different form of physical and digital interaction between the traveller and commercial offer, and a way for airports to diversify their sources of revenue generation and brand promotion. Essentially a touchpoint is where a consumer interacts with a brand, whether or not there is a direct purchase.

Increasingly, customers do not purchase straight away, but rather they go through an elaborate process of engaging with the brand, experiencing the product, and analysing the offer. There is a tendency towards repositioning customer values; customers would rather spend their time experiencing and researching the product, instead of saving their time on a quick purchase of what is directly available at the store.

Touchpoints may be physical or digital. Physical touchpoints, such as pop-up stores, collection points, customer support counters, digital advertising, and areas for showcasing products or staging workshops, play a vital role in driving consumers to a brand's online offer. Customers are interested in the story behind a product; they want to know the background, its sustainability approach and the manufacturing process. The more interactive and Instagrammable it gets, the more memorable and engaging the passenger journey becomes.

Other touchpoints are based on automation and digital technology, such as virtual kiosks and digital ordering for gate, car boot, or home delivery.

The footprint of touchpoints tends to be small, allowing for seamless integration into gate and seating areas, around columns, and in front of technical cores. They require minimal construction or fit-out measures, typically involving differentiated flooring or a small podium, electrical, and data supply. This makes touchpoints perfect for experimentation and innovation. While they currently provide additional revenue on top of the traditional categories of duty-free, specialty retail, and F&B, which are measured by spending per passenger and floor area, touchpoints will generate a greater share of overall revenue as more subjective performance metrics focused on customer experience and emotion per square metre come into play. Additionally, in the future, it should be possible to establish a connection between an initial brand experience and a subsequent online purchase, considering the entire process as one unified customer journey or transaction.

Flexible Retailing

Traditional brick-and-mortar shops are inflexible and poorly suited to immersive brand experiences and new interactive forms of retailing. Both the rapid advancement of technology and current geopolitical events have underscored the importance of flexibility. Additionally, the time factor plays a role; it takes years to conceive and implement a new terminal design. By the time the first shops open, the commercial strategy may be years old. Flexibility must be incorporated into the design concept.

While physical shops may still be relevant for some luxury brands, they are likely to decline as new forms of commercial layouts emerge. These layouts will consist of flexible retail islands integrated with differentiated seating areas or along passenger paths. The transformation of walk-through duty-free shop into department store or marketplace concepts, currently seen in some airports, is a strategy that may extend to specialty retail and F&B areas.

Enhancing the Mix

Not only are we seeing the blending of travel and shopping, but also the enhancement of these primary functions with other activities. Many of these activities are wellness-oriented, serving to help travellers alleviate stress, boost energy levels during long transfers, and reduce the perception of waiting time. Some airports provide dedicated rooms for yoga and offer twenty-minute classes. Other activities that aid relaxation and provide entertainment include gaming, private sleep cells, private music video booths, and often underestimated children's play areas. These activities are best offered in a differentiated layout with a range of options that allow travellers to make choices aligned with their needs.

Blending Commercial and Dwelling

Blending commercial and dwell areas is an effective way to engage increasingly demanding travellers with retail and F&B offer and increase the airport's revenue. By seamlessly merging these areas, travellers can be enticed to explore nearby shopping, entertainment, and dining options while waiting for gate announcements.

The conventional model of a central dwell area may evolve into a fluid system of smaller, differentiated dwell spaces interspersed with commercial touchpoints and flexible retail islands. Alongside these elements, dwell zones may be activated by event areas for showcasing products, introducing local thematic experiences, or presenting brand stories. Nearby retailers can showcase their products in dwell areas, enabling travellers to experience or test them in a fun and captivating way. Food, in particular, plays a significant role in the passenger experience, and some airports are offering cooking workshops and Taste & Learn events.

Dwell seating and dwell time have a direct impact on passenger spending. Therefore, in some revenue models, a significant portion of the dwell area may be included in the overall leasable area calculation.


As digitisation progresses and generational changes occur, commercial layouts are shifting toward flexible retail islands and touchpoints integrated with differentiated dwell areas that also offer entertainment, showcasing, events, and experiences. The value of retail space is no longer solely measured in terms of square metres or turnover but also by its ability to attract foot traffic, increase dwell time, generate social media shares, and trigger downstream purchases.

While airports are uniquely positioned to meet the challenges of the future, they must also consider complex technical and operational constraints, as well as the needs of multiple stakeholders. Most airports approach experimentation with caution, waiting for new benchmarks to emerge and technologies to evolve. Striking the right balance between introducing technology and ensuring travellers are ready for it is crucial. As architects and designers, our role is to shape these new commercial environments around a diverse, highly individual, digitally-enhanced passenger journey that is continuously evolving at a rapid pace.

About the Author

Andrew Mackay (Architect BArch (Hons) BPD)

Director, Brussels

Andrew helps manage our Brussels studio.

He joined Chapman Taylor in 2007 and became a Director in 2022. Prior to working at Chapman Taylor, Andrew worked for practices in Australia (where he received his architectural degree), New Zealand, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany.

His wide-ranging design experience gained from working on different building types in different cultures and environments serves to strengthen the studio's vision and output.

Areas of expertise:

Design / Mixed-use / Masterplanning / Retail / Workplace

Andrew ist seit 2007 bei Chapman Taylor tätig, seit 2018 ist er Prokurist im Düsseldorfer Büro. Als Leiter des Entwurfsteams hat er in den vergangenen Jahren eine Vielzahl wegweisender Projekte realisiert und betreut aktuell eine große Bandbreite unterschiedlichster Bauvorhaben.

Vor seiner Tätigkeit bei Chapman Taylor arbeitete Andrew für Unternehmen in Australien - wo er seinen Abschluss in Architektur machte-, in Neuseeland, Großbritannien, den Niederlanden und Deutschland.

Seine weitreichenden Erfahrungen in allen Stufen der Gestaltung und Umsetzung verschiedener Gebäudetypen in verschiedenen Kulturen und Umgebungen stärken und bereichern das Düsseldorfer Büro.


Entwurf/ Mixed-Use/ Masterplanung/ Einzelhandel/ Büro

About the Author

Mariia Grachova (MS Arch)

Director, Brussels

Mariia has worked on major retail, transportation and mixed-use schemes in Europe, Africa and South Asia, including the Brussels Airport Connector building, Evry2 shopping centre and the adjacent Place des Terrasses urban regeneration development near Paris, Douala Airport in Cameroon and Dolmen shopping centre in Lahore, Pakistan.

Mariia joined Chapman Taylor in July 2012 and became a Director in 2023. Committed and rigorous, Mariia has displayed great leadership skills and is technically proficient, as well as being able to speak several languages.

Areas of expertise:

Retail / Transportation / Mixed-Use / Delivery

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