Airport shopping

What do people buy at airports? Pig “poop,” cactus, records & more.

What can you  buy at airports? Gucci bags, of course, but also plenty of locally-themed items that can be great souvenirs of your trip.

Here’s a slightly different version of a column on airport bestsellers I put together for CNBC.

Bottled water and neck pillows may be the top selling items in many airport newsstands, but around the country passengers are also making room in their carry-ons for containers of mustard, tins of popcorn and a plethora of pink headphones.

As airports around the country sharpen their focus on customer satisfaction and increase their reliance on income from food and beverage, specialty retail and other non-aeronautical revenue, concourses are getting more comfortable and shop offerings are becoming more creative.

At Denver International Airport, almond toffee made in nearby Grand Junction, CO by Enstrom Coffee & Confectionary is a top seller, while at the gourmet 1897 Market operated by HMSHost at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, locally-made Sweet Girl Cookies and Queen Charlotte’s Original Pimento Cheese are customer favorites.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport does a brisk business in scorpion suckers (hard candy with a scorpion in the center) and racks up a million dollars in sales of cactus plants each year.

“We have a variety of different shapes and sizes packaged so that travelers can take one home with them,” said Heather Lissner, spokeswoman for the Aviation Department of the City of Phoenix, “We also offer a petting cactus, which is easy to touch compared to the other varieties.”

Flying Pig products – pig hats, plush pigs, pig-shaped lip gloss, bags of Pig Poop (chocolate covered peanuts) and other souvenirs depicting winged pigs – are, collectively, the top selling merchandise in the shops at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Why flying pigs? During the mid-to-late 1800s, Cincinnati was the largest pork processing center in the country, earning the nickname ‘Porkopolis.’ Winged pigs are one way the city embraces its past.

Speaking of pigs, at San Francisco International Airport – which recently added a pig to its team of therapy animals that visit with passengers – locally-made Candied Bacon Caramel Corn from Chunky Pig is reportedly flying off the shelves at the Skyline News Shop in Terminal 3.

At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Garrett Popcorn – a modern hometown favorite, is a perennial top seller.

Combined, the two Garrett Popcorn Shops at O’Hare sold more than 47,000 one-gallon tins of popcorn (assorted varieties) during 2016, at an average price of $34.50 a tin, said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Sweet Beginnings Honey, made by bees at the airport’s apiary also sells well at the O’Hare Farmers’ Market.

During February alone, the shops at Norman Mineta San Jose International sold more than 15,000 bottles of water, more than 200 Belkin phone chargers and an equal number of Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry-branded clothing.

Sports-related merchandise is a big seller at other airports as well – especially when teams and players are winning.

At the AIRMALL at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, sports memorabilia sells well, but so does locally-made ballpark-style mustard; at the rate of 40 cases each month.

Both Stadium and Bertman brand mustards are sold at CLE, with Stadium outselling Bertman by 15 to 20 percent, AIRMALL reports.

Sasquatch and Big Foot-branded items, including t-shirts, stickers, food and books are popular right now at the Made in Oregon stores at Portland International Airport. But store manager Candace Vincent said the airport stores sold more than $1 million of carpet-themed products (neck pillows, socks, shirts, jam, etc.) during 2015 and 2016 when locals mourning the replacement of the airport’s iconic teal flooring turned the rug and its pattern into an on-line sensation.

And at Newark Liberty International Airport, travelers have been snapping up vinyl records from the shop at CBGB L.A.B (lounge and bar) operated by OTG in Terminal C.

“We don’t report volumes, but I can tell you it’s the top seller in that retail concept,” said Eric Brinker, OTG’s Vice President of Experience, “People are buying record players in the shop as well.”

In Houston, where OTG is working with United Airlines to redo the dining and retail offerings in its terminals at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, there’s also a surprising best-seller.

“We sell tons of headphones in Houston,” said Brinker, “And for some reason we sell more pink headphones in Texas than in any other place in the country.”

(All photos courtesy of the respective airports.)

New, old-fashioned arcade at Orlando Int’l Airport

With theme park-like phot ops, a fun fountain, a giant aquarium, art and plenty of shops and restaurants Orlando International Airport is already quite fun.

With the addition of the 2,000 square-foot old-fashioned Power Play Arcade, the fun meter now goes higher.

The arcade is part of the redevelopment of a larger area that now also includes a Skechers footwear shop, a branch of XpresSpa, Natalie’s Candy Jar, a Tumi travel gear store, Desigual, Guess, Timeless Travel (watches) and Naturally Inspired – selling “an eco-friendly line of hand-crafted wares.”

(Photo courtesy Westfield)

Souvenir Sunday: how airports choose new vendors

I shared some notes here last week about an educational event Seattle-Tacoma International held to encourage small businesses in the community to bring their products to the airport.

Here’s the “At the Airport” column I wrote about that effort – and others – for USA TODAY.

Hard-to-resist warm cookies, smartly-branded bottled water, and a line of cannabis-themed health and beauty products promising to make you feel great, but not get you high.

These were just some of the products displayed recently at an “opportunities summit” designed to help small businesses from the Pacific Northwest get their foot in the door at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which saw more than $250 million of sales in 2016.

Federal funding mandates that airports create concessions opportunities for small, disadvantaged and/or local business and the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac’s operator, is determined to both significantly increase representation by these vendors at the airport and boost the airport’s unique and local feel.

To that end, the airport’s outreach event included information-packed how-to panels and fair to introduce existing airport vendors to hopeful new ones and plant seeds for new partnerships and stand-alone concessions.

Deborah Tuggle, President of Bite Me! Inc., was on site with “That Cookie,” made with domestic walnuts and Belgium Chocolate, a product that’s already a best-seller in one of the region’s gourmet grocery chains, where the cookies are sold warm.

“I know people will buy this cookie at the airport,” said Tuggle, who envisions either a stand-alone warm cookie kiosk or a partnership with another vendor at the airport and $3 million in annual airport cookie sales.

Bottled water is a big seller at any airport and identical twin brothers John and William Longley were are hoping to get placement for their bottles of “Plane Water” which are filled with water from springs discovered by pioneers along the Oregon Trail.


The Longley brothers got the idea for their product while working at an airport shop that didn’t sell water. Instead of sending customers elsewhere, they created their own bottled water to sell in the shop and are now determined to broaden their distribution.

The health and beauty products Cannabis Basics founder Aimee Warner had on display caught the eye of Mike Petersen, Senior Vice President Operations for Hudson Group in Seattle as a possible line to carry in the company’s airport stores.

“You want to be the first, to be trendsetting, to have the new big thing,” he said. And even though Warner assured him the products could cross state lines legally, Petersen said “We’ll need to run this by legal and make sure we are protecting the brand.”

While taking a small business into an airport comes with its own set of challenges, those that are successful can reap big rewards, said Deborah McElroy, Executive Vice President of airport membership organization ACI-NA.

“Airports are the front door the community and the last memory, and they serve people from all over the country and around the world. So it’s not only an opportunity to shine on the local level, airports give local businesses a national stage.”

Like SEA, other airports around the country are being pro-active about bringing unique, local vendors from its community into the terminals.

San Francisco International Airport is currently in year three of a five-year Pop-Up Retail Program that allows local business to test new concepts in a gate area of the airport where over three million people pass by each year.

“Airport staff actively reach out to San Francisco Bay Area businesses and host informational sessions,” said SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

Right now the Exploratorium and Jean-Marie Auboine Chocolatier have set up shop in SFO’s pop-up spaces. In May, they will be replaced by San FranCycle and NYS Collection Eyewear.

Denver International Airport has small business-oriented cart and kiosk program managed by PRI, a specialty retail licensing firm.

There are about 40 locations throughout the airport, which generated over $18.2 million in gross sales in 2016.

“Staff of the company that operates the program canvass constantly for new local concepts and operators in Denver and Colorado, including juried crafts shows, neighborhoods and local shopping centers,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery, “They also pursue local manufacturers and distributors.”

Beyond local programs, national airport conferences offer some vendors an opportunity to get their brands better known.

For example, the annual Airport Revenue News conference and exhibition features a Shark Tank-like session where new companies can pitch concepts and get feedback from airport decision-makers.

“In the past we had Camille’s Hand Dipped Ice Cream Bars, Firkin Pubs and a vaping company,” said ARN publisher Ramon Lo, “This year the line-up include Smoke’s Poutinerie, a hangover prevention drink called Never Too Hung Over and Roam Fitness,” a woman-owned company that is about to open its first post-security fitness club, at BWI Airport.

Cynthia Sandall, co-founder and CMO of Roam Fitness says she’s not too nervous about going before the panel.

”When you’ve been living and breathing your startup business you know every fact inside and out,” said Sandall. “That being said, it’s always great to get a new question or a variation of an old one that makes us thing about a certain aspect in a new light.”


Souvenir Sunday – Not yet for sale at Seattle’s Airport

Seattle-Tacoma International held an educational fair on Friday to help small business owners in the area learn what it takes to get their products into the airport.

After a couple of information-packed panels, some hopeful entrepreneurs showed off souvenirs, food and even some cannabis-themed health and beauty aids that may soon show up in the SEA shops.

The cookie above,  known as “That Cookie,” is already wildly popular at local gourmet grocery stores.

And these Seattle-themed pouches and bags are carried in the big souvenir shops in town.



These twins – juniors in college – are hoping their bottled water called “Plane Water” – now sold in just one airport shop – will get sold alongside the national brands of bottled water sold throughout the airport.

This line of cannabis-themed health and beauty products got a lot of attention. “I just need to run it by legal,” said a rep from a airport vendor hoping to pick up the line.