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12th March 2016

Still Waiting For Take Off: Travel Retail’s Technology Troubles

“Digital and online technology – threat or opportunity to travel retail?” The fact that the stock answer to this often-repeated question seems to be “both” encapsulates why it’s effectively redundant. Whether it’s a threat or opportunity, we’re going to miss out sooner or later if we don’t embrace it. Unfortunately, only lip-service is being paid to this trend by many in our industry.

m1nd-set recently published the findings of its research into the use of digital and social media in TR. I won’t attempt a summary of the results – you can read themHERE – but the results are at once predictable and shocking. Predictable, because it's been no secret that we lag behind domestic retail in targeting shoppers through technology. What is shocking, however, is the extent to which TR is playing catch-up. Put simply, we’re not even close: while 32% of those surveyed regularly use electronic devices very frequently to access shopping information in domestic retail, only 6% do so in travel retail. Clara Perez, m1nd-set’s Research Director, quite rightly used the publishing of these findings to highlight the need for the industry to heed this wake-up call and start engaging more with potential consumers in the digital sphere. She’s quite right – but who is realistically going to make this happen and how?

For me, the majority of the heavy lifting required to drag TR into a brave new digital era needs to come from the airports. They are closest to travelling passengers, closest to the airlines, have strong links with local tourism boards and organisations, they own the physical, and increasingly online, real estate (an average consumer that wants to know what they can buy when they travel visits an airport’s website, not a retailer’s or brand’s). They can build the infrastructure which empowers retailers and brands and bridges the digital and physical worlds. Beacon technology is just one great example of where airports can use their position to extend the reach of retailers and brands as part of an overarching strategy to use real-time information to create a better in-airport experience.

That’s not to say retailers and brands don’t have an important role to play. It’s up to them to leverage the platform provided by airports to deliver a relevant and compelling retail offer which is as effective a shop-window as the physical retail domain. Given some of the amazing ways brands use technology to win consumer loyalty in the domestic channel, and the quality of the campaigns they run across various channels, there’s no reason to think that the same can’t apply in TR. Airports supply the infrastructure, retailers the customer knowledge and retail expertise, and brands deliver the product innovation, storytelling and razzmatazz.

There are some great examples of technology used being to good effect in TR: one look at the shortlist for the 2016 Moodies – the awards dedicated to digital, social and mobile in airports – shows that there are a number of airports clearly making major strides in this area. Some of the work being done by the likes of Mighty Media Group and M2mobi in partnership with forward-thinking airports is incredibly exciting and points the way forward. Sadly, however, judging by M1nd-Set’s findings, we’re still some way off broad adoption of truly effective digital strategies, these isolated projects aside. Given the competition our industry faces from domestic and online channels – Amazon and Alibaba being two online behemoths with the clout to potentially cause seismic shifts in TR and an evident appetite for the fray – it’s time to start truly embracing the online world. This trend is neither a threat nor an opportunity - it’s simply a reality

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