Airport retail has been hit hard by COVID-19, but retail operators are fighting back, armed with everything from bots to virtual reality, as Tara Craig reports

Self-service checkouts at ARI’s Larnaca International Airport provide passengers with reassurance during the pandemic 
Travellers at Narita International in Japan can use Bebot for shopping and restaurant tips based on their search history

During the current pandemic, tentative travellers are unlikely to want to browse an airport’s retail offerings, so the first challenge facing retailers is to get potential customers into shops. This is where bots come into play.

Japanese firm Bespoke launched Bebot to answer standard airport FAQs, but COVID-19 prompted first a health-, and subsequently, a retailfocused tweak. As Yayoi Tanikawa, of product delivery at Bespoke, explained: “Airports use our chatbots to promote shops and restaurants to passengers, with recommendations based on the passenger’s questions.” Among those already using the bot to nudge travellers to retail outlets are Narita International Airport, Vienna Airport City and Tampa International Airport in Florida. 

London Gatwick launched Gail the Gatwick chatbot on WhatsApp and Apple Chat on October 6, 2020. The bot answers a range of questions, from retail openings to COVID-19 safety measures.

Minimal contact 

According to Anthony Kenny, chief commercial officer and deputy CEO of Aer Rianta International (ARI) in Ireland: “Passengers, while ultimately wanting safety reassurances, want as normal an airport experience as possible – and they see shopping as part of that.”

Kenny acknowledges that fear of COVID-19 means customers have a desire to touch as little as possible in-store, leading ARI to embrace VR technology. Among the solutions in use in its outlets is the Estée Lauder Virtual Try-On Mirror, which enables customers to experiment with shades of make-up without physically applying them, and Findation, a foundation matching engine. 

“Further brand partnerships are being planned using other technology,” said Kenny. “iPads with access to online search and match tools have been introduced to offer the customer a personalised experience where testers are unavailable for safety reasons. Our Muscat store even offers contactless, automatic diffusion of scents.” 

The YouCam, from Taiwanese firm Perfect Corp, has been adopted by a number of major players, including Lagardère Duty Free France and Shilla Duty Free Hong Kong. According to Tony Tsai, senior business development manager at Perfect Corp, customers have responded very well to the solution, which enables them to try on make-up using augmented reality (AR).

Passengers access the system via a retailerowned device – usually an iPad – loaded with Perfect’s app. “The onboard camera provides a live view of the passenger, enabling them to follow the on-screen user interface to navigate virtual make-up products. They can then see the make-up applied to their face virtually, in real-time and realistically,” Tsai explained. 

Perfect Corp has recently released a new contactless feature for its in-store virtual try-on, enabling users to operate the solution with gestures or voiceactivated controls. 

In use at ARI’s Dublin outlets, Findation is a global foundation-matching search engine that helps shoppers to look for their perfect shade virtually

Perfect Corp’s YouCam enables shoppers to ‘try on’ make-up while observing COVID-19 hygiene regulations

Texas-based lounge specialist Airport Dimensions, a Collinson Group company, has developed Connecta, an e-commerce and passenger loyalty platform that lets users shop for duty free items, among other products, from their smartphone. 

According to Chris Gwilliam, vice president of business development at Airport Dimensions, the soon-to-launch platform “offers passengers a seamless airport journey, taking away some of the stress and uncertainty.” 

Connecta comes with out-of-the-box interfaces into the Collinson Airport Alliance family of services such as Grab food ordering, Inflyter Duty Free ordering and collection, and the Airport Dimensions lounge network. 

Travellers using Orlando International Airport, meanwhile, can buy products from brands as diverse as LEGO, Kylie Cosmetics and Sound & Mobile from eight new vending machines installed across the four airsides.

In the long term 

For airport retailers, the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud is greater insight into passenger preferences.

“Travellers tell us that they are making purchasing decisions well in advance of travel, and retailers need to engage then. Relying on anonymous footfall walking past your airport outlet will not bring business growth back,” said Gwilliam. 

While ARI has increased its focus on Click & Collect and launched a new e-commerce platform in Canada and New Zealand this year, it intends to develop a proposition encompassing both conventional and contactless shopping. “The key is to ensure seamless integration between our in-store and online experiences, supported by streamlined digital platforms and detailed analytics,” Kenny explained. 

Airport Dimensions’ Gwilliam agrees: “We are all looking forward to getting back to some sort of normality, but there has been a big shift to online shopping and post-COVID-19 that is not going to slip back. We expect the same at airports. A mobileand data-enabled relationship, with the convenience and assurance of digital mobile support will eventually become a hygiene factor for all airports.” 

Looking ahead, we can expect increasingly sophisticated technology. We’ve seen robot cleaners in airports – will we see robot shop assistants next?