airport retail

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.)

Fresh shops & restaurants for PDX & LAX


75 percent of the existing leases for shops and restaurants at Portland International Airport are expiring in 2017 and agreements for many fresh new options are just beginning to be rolled out.

The list kicks off with the recent announcement of leases for 11 new outlets that should be open in early 2015, including Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen, Café Yumm!, Henry’s Tavern, Hissho Sushi, Mo’s Seafood & Chowder, a branch of The Country Cat Dinnerhouse & Bar – and more.

Meanwhile, at Los Angeles International Airport, Terminal 2 is beginning its transformation.

In the video below, Westfield shares information about its plan for 20 new dining and retail outlets and fresh amenities destined for that terminal.

The plan includes doubling the dining options – to 12 – with two Starbucks, SeaLegs Wine Bar, SLAPFISH Modern Seafood Shack The Pie Hole, Pepita Cantina; Pick Up Stix; Fresh Brothers Pizza, Ciabatta Bar; BUILT Custom Burger and Barney’s Beanery, a classic American roadhouse modeled after Route 66.

For shopping, the retail outlets will include a SPANX outlet, a Duty Free shop, 2 CNBC shops and 2 Univision shops, which will carry many products targeted to the Hispanic traveler.

Amenities-wise, we can look forward to gate areas with lounge-style seating, lots more charging stations, new restrooms, terrazzo flooring and new lighting.

Pop-up shops popping up at airports

Denver International Airport _RT70 -new kiosk selling local ski-resort related items.

Route 70 Resort Wear kiosk at Denver International Airport

They’ve worked well in malls and on upscale shopping streets. Now pop-up retail shops and restaurants are becoming more common in airports.

For London’s Heathrow Airport, pop-ups offer the ability to provide “seasonality and variety to passengers and the opportunity to test new concepts and brands,” said Hazel Catterall, Heathrow’s head of fashion.

In addition to frozen yogurt in the summer, artisan chocolate at Easter, flip-flops and sandals during the summer and specialty gifts in the spring, “we introduce relevant popups to match the travel theme such as ‘BBC Doctor Who’ products during the program anniversary to coincide with the summer holidays,” said Iona Harper, Heathrow’s experience delivery manager.

Copenhagen Airport has hosted pop-up restaurants, where top Danish chefs took turns serving special tasting menus from an open kitchen. And every few months a different company creates a pop-up in the “Brand Box” in the airport’s main tax-free shop. Right now outdoor clothing and gear company, Yeti, is in the CPH brand box with a special fitting room offering customers a place to try on down jackets at icy cold winter temperatures.

Copenhagen Airport_Yeti Pop-Up Shop allows travelers to try on clothes in cold temperatures. Courtesy CPH Airport

Copenhagen Airport – Yeti Pop-Up shop allows travelers to try on clothes in the cold.

Airports in the United States are hopping on the pop-up bandwagon as well.

In October 2013 JetBlue hosted a three-day Farmers Market at T5 at JFK Airport _courtesy JetBlue

In October 2013, JetBlue hosted a three-day Farmers Market in T5 at JFK International Airport. “That was such a successful pop-up experience that we’re now looking at how we can integrate it more on a regular basis,” said JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young.

DCA_HickoryFarms pop-up_courtesy Hickory Farms via Twitter

During this past holiday season, Hickory Farms tested the idea of a Holiday Market shop at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. In the Delta Terminal of LaGuardia Airport in New York, the eco-friendly lifestyle and fashion website Zady set up a pop-up shop selling jewelry, accessories, handbags, clothing and home goods.

“From a business standpoint, it’s a great idea,” said Ramon Lo, editorial director of Airport Revenue News. “Short-term leases can give vendors a chance to dip their toes into the airport arena and build awareness for street-side locations,” while allowing airports to vet new operators and, often, fill unused spaces, he said.

This past January, when San Francisco International Airport reopened United’s renovated Terminal 3, Boarding Area E, two spaces for pop-up shops with year-long leases were included alongside new restaurants and retailers that will be there much longer.

“We wanted to provide new, small business owners an opportunity to operate at SFO without the cost of an expensive build out,” said airport spokesman Doug Yakel. “If the shops are successful, they can propose on another space at the airport in the future. If they are not successful, at least they don’t have huge bills to pay going forward.”

For the next year, the work of local and regional artists will be on view at SFO in the Collector pop-up, while organic olive oil, skin care products and other items will be sold at the pop-up shop operated by Marin County-based McEvoy Ranch.

SFO_McEvoy Ranch Pop Up_Courtesy SFO

While the shop has been open less than a month, “we’re experiencing fast-paced growth,” said McEvoy Ranch co-proprietor Nion McEvoy. “With upwards of 20 new flights slated to be added by the airline in March, we’re confident that sales will continue to increase.”

Temporary retail stores selling Broncos and Seahawks memorabilia did very well this year at Denver and Seattle International airports, as did the Hudson News pop-up shops at Newark Liberty International Airport during Super Bowl week.

It can often take some negotiation with airports to secure the space for pop-ups, “but airports are motivated and sometimes ask for these pop-ups because they of course share in the benefit of the sales,” said Hudson Group spokeswoman Laura Samuels.

Increased sales for an existing tenant – and the desire to help out local lovebirds – is why Austin Bergstrom International Airport makes room in the bag claim around Valentine’s Day for Amy’s Ice Creams to set up a low-tech pop-up shop (a cloth-covered table with a cash box, chairs and a cooler) selling chocolate truffles and pink egg cartons filled with chocolate-covered strawberries.

AustinBergstrom Airport_Amys IceCreams Valentine's Day pop-up in bag claim_Courtesy Sandy L. Stevens, Austin-Bergstrom

Courtesy Sandy L. Stevens – Austin-Bergstrom Int’l Airport


“The airport doesn’t charge extra for this or other any pop-up,” said airports spokesman Jason Zielinski. “We receive a set percentage of total sales for all concession operations, so an increase in sales generated by pop-ups also produces an increase in revenue for the airport.”

At Denver International Airport, a Retail Merchandising Unit (RMU) cart and kiosk program in place since September 2011 offers 38 spots that often function as pop-ups.

The program offers entrepreneurs and small business owners agreements that last from three months to a year and most go to Denver or Colorado-based concepts that have featured everything from solar-powered accessories and emergency supplies to jewelry, vitamins and handmade candy and chocolates.

“Some stay on and get new agreements, but usually a third if not half will turn over on an annual basis,” said Deborah Kravitz, owner of program operator Provenzano Resources.

Route 70 Resort Wear, which sells branded T-shirts and sweatshirts from Denver-area ski resorts along Route 70 for at least six months, is the newest kiosk to open at Denver International Airport. And any day now, Pink Slip, a shop selling boutique and brand-name boxers and T-shirts for men and tights, stockings and other “basics” for women, will open for five months at LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B, in the space formerly occupied by Brookstone.

“This will help us get a read on if this is something travelers want without us having to go into the investment of a longer term lease,” said shop co-owner and airport concessions consultant Ellery Plowman of Elleco. And because Pink Slip is renting the space in the gap between two long-term tenants, the airport gets a bit of extra revenue “and passengers see something new, unique and cool” instead of an empty space, said Plowman.

One company eyeing JFK, Heathrow and other hub airports as possible pop-up venues is Vancouver-based Indochino, an on-line custom clothing company for men that has a Traveling Tailor program.

“We had great success at our event in Grand Central Station with the kind of men who appreciate the convenience of a 30-minute appointment that results in a custom wardrobe,” said Kyle Vucko, Indochino co-founder and CEO. “And an airport pop-up store could resonate in the same way.”

The Indochino Pop-Up Store: Grand Central Station, New York City.

Indochino Pop-Up store at Grand Central Station, NYC

(My story about airport pop-up shops first appeared on USA TODAY in my February 2014 ‘At the Airport’ column.)