Flow fundamentals

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Passenger flow analysis is a crucial tool in helping airports improve customer service and maximize retail performance – Jeremy Corfield, partner at CPI Australia, which advises airports on commercial strategy and planning, explains more

How important is understanding passenger flow in achieving better retail performance at airports?

Retail performance at airports is driven by a wide range of variables, some of which the commercial department can control, and many they cannot. Passenger flow is however something that the commercial team should have significant input to. And it’s one of the most important determinants of retail performance. You can have the highest value customers, and all the right brands, but if your passenger flow isn’t optimized to take advantage of this, you won’t be able to achieve optimal commercial performance.

What are some of the key metrics airports need to keep track of?

Most airports measure key KPIs such as spend per passenger, yield per passenger, spend and yield per square meter, average transaction value, penetration, and some measure of customer satisfaction. Above and beyond these core measures, things like dwell time, and more importantly effective dwell time in the retail space, are key.

During the Passenger Terminal Conference in Cologne in March 2016, Toronto Pearson International Airport claimed reducing the average security wait time by just one minute across the airport could lead to an additional C$2m (US$1.5m) to C$3m (US$2.27m) annual uplift in sales – were you surprised?

We think this particular measure may be correct for one airport in one set of circumstances. But we really don’t buy into the concept that every additional minute of airside dwell results in ‘X’ amount of sales uplift. One minute of itself is not really useful. In the same way that every airport is different, every additional minute of airside dwell is different.

If you have a long, winding passenger flow, with poor sightlines, a lack of seating and confusing orientation, that spare minute is not going to help you much. Similarly, if your airport has a lot of transit passengers and the average transit time is three hours, that extra minute is not going to make any meaningful difference to sales. People can only shop and eat for so long.

Or if your airside dwell (the time post security up until the boarding call) is very short, that minute is not going to help much either. One extra minute won’t make me visit a café if I am already pressed for time. But an extra 5 or 10 minutes opens up the opportunity for customers to visit an extra retail unit, have a larger, higher value meal, or have an extra drink. Balancing all of that with, as a rule of thumb, faster security processing should improve your customers’ mindset and stress levels, making them more receptive to the commercial offer.

What advice would you give to airports to better improve passenger flow to boost retail?

Good, clear, comfortable passenger flow is one of the core principles of a strong commercial scheme. We see many schemes that don’t deliver an optimal passenger flow, even if they are the most space-efficient way to design the departure lounge. We believe it is better to have less commercial space of high quality than lots of commercial space of poor quality.

People like to know where they are going in an airport. Orientation, sightlines and wayfinding are so important to the commercial performance. A good passenger flow combines a high percentage of walk-past retail with regular availability of varied seating, sufficient walkways for people to move at a pace that is comfortable for them, and a layout that encourages dwell in and around the core retail offer. It’s not easy to achieve but the benefits of a good passenger flow are significant.

What are some of the common problems and bottlenecks that negatively affect passenger flow?

Poor passenger flows can be seen in many parts of the airport journey. If we concentrate on airside departures, many airports do not provide sufficient space for an orientation zone in the transition from security to retail. Passengers often walk directly from security into a duty-free store, and the retailer is left with very difficult space at the front of the store. That’s because their potential customers are still trying to compose themselves, find FIDS (flight information display system), and understand the rest of the airport journey in front of them. And that means they are not in a shopping mindset.

Many duty-free stores also have narrow walkways, meaning it is difficult to pass from one side of the store to the other, or to slow down and browse. When there is insufficient circulation space, people walk faster, and the faster they walk, the less they spend. This is true in general retail space as much as in walkthrough stores. So providing adequate circulation space is just vital, even if the finance department is questioning the value of “empty space”. Cross flows can also be problematic. Cross flows can create congestion, confusion and therefore stress. Wherever possible, cross flows should be minimized.

What is the ideal dwell time for passengers that airports should be aiming to achieve?

Lots of people talk about the ‘golden hour’ – an hour to an hour-and-a-half of effective airside dwell prior to the flight being called. We’ve seen plenty of data that broadly supports this notion.

This provides enough time to browse retail, use the facilities, and eat and drink. More time than this is of course useful, but there is a decay in spend once dwell time increases past a certain point. This point is different for every airport.

Long haul, leisure passengers will spend their time very differently to short haul, business travelers. We always look at the passenger mix, the routes, sector lengths, and airlines when planning the commercial mix and thinking about how we can best commercialize the available dwell time.

With ever more data available, can it still all go wrong?

Data is knowledge, but I think there are plenty of airports that collect far more data than they can actually action. Each data item is just a measure, but without context this data doesn’t tell you much. It’s the same with benchmarking.

We regularly see great volumes of benchmarking that airports have done. Benchmarking is interesting but it’s not the answer. Who are you benchmarking against? Do those airports have comparable passenger profile, routes and airlines? Are there local factors that impact their performance that will not apply at your airport? Is their performance actually “good”?

So relying on data without context is dangerous, and can result in bad decisions. Some of our most challenging conversations with our airport customers are about the need to create the best plan for their airport, not a plan that mimics data from other airports.

Once you’ve managed to ensure the best possible dwell time for passengers, what should airports do to maximize their spend?

Good commercial planning is a mix of art and science. The fundamentals don’t change, even if over time the execution does. It’s important to remember that we are dealing with people and their behaviors, and good commercial planning aims to positively influence how customers feel, think, and act in your airport. In some airports, local brands are really important. And in others, a strong presence of international brands is an absolute requirement. In every airport, having an F&B offer that provides choice of concepts, menu and a range of price points, suited to the dwell time and onward travel profile of the airport, and reflects current dining trends, is so important.

Sense of place is always a focus, and it’s important, as long as the sense of place is actually relevant and meaningful to the airport journey. Done well, sense of place is a very powerful tool for driving retail performance. Getting the commercial mix right to appeal to as many of your passenger groups as possible is vital, and creating logical adjacencies and flows complements this. Creating a space that feels good, is intuitive to navigate, is comfortable, with manageable walking distances and good access to facilities will certainly help to drive commercial performance – doing this gives your retailers the best possible chance of converting a passenger into a customer.



Jeremy Corfield is a partner at CPI Australia, as well as a director of the CPI Airport Commercial Development & Management Course, Sydney, and a presenter on the CPI/Cranfield University Airport Commercial Course in the UK.

September 29, 2016

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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