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How Airlines and Airports Will Use Tech to Boost Retail

Apr 23, 2014 9:00 am

Skift Take

Passengers will likely spend more, but many of them will appreciate this as long as its seamless.

— Marisa Garcia

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Lisi Niesner  / Reuters

A man with a tablet computer stands in a Duty Free store at the Fraport airport in Frankfurt. Lisi Niesner / Reuters


The aviation industry revealed a unified strategy using new tech innovations to take a greater share of our travel budget at both the Passenger Terminal Expo in Barcelona and the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg earlier this month.

Airports and airlines alike view retail as an important revenue source, but making us walk through the Duty-Free shop to get to our gate, and rolling a clunky trolley down the aisle of the airplane while we try to sleep just aren’t cutting it.

Aviation is getting smart on retail, and some of their strategies to get us to open up our wallets just might fly.

In the Airport

Companies like NCR are banking on digital airport retail by allowing us to book tickets to special events and shows at our destination city, preorder meals, make Duty-Free purchases, and buy terminal services even before we get where we’re going. NCR refers to it as a “personalized, digital shopping experience.” According to NCR, this is something we want.

They conducted their own Travel Experience Survey and put together some interesting statistics:

  • 38% of us are likely to buy duty free, upgrades and Wi-Fi before arriving at the airport via our mobile devices.
  • 40% of us don’t want to deal with people when we buy, and are more likely to buy if we can do that via mobile or self-service kiosks.
  • 55% of us would be willing to give up personal data in order to receive “targeted offers” from favorite airport restaurants or retailers.

After doing a test run of their terminal and mobile systems, it’s easy to see the convenience, especially when time is limited. The NCR system is reasonably responsive and paying via NFC (Near Field Communications) or QR code is future-tech enough to be fun.

It’s also a crafty way to trick us into spending, since we don’t actually have to reach for our wallets to make the purchase. This capitalises on the same invisible spending dynamic which works so well for certain retailers when we make online purchases.

Those who follow tech might be interested to know that NCR is hedging their bets. They’ve got mixed feelings on NFC or QR will come out on top.

On the Airplane

On the airplane, we were impressed by Thales in-flight systems for retail. Part of the pleasure principle of their platform is that all of Thales’ touch screens are responsive. Thales explained that they don’t depend on body heat to activate, like many IFE systems still do, and instead use screen sensors similar to the ones which make our tablets work so well.

Thales have also incorporated an Android platform for their OS and enhanced the UX with an intuitive interface which makes figuring out how to use their IFE systems a breeze.

During the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Thales announced a ten-year partnership with GuestLogix for the payment solutions to accompany their retail services. They rely on a slot for swiping credit cards embedded into the IFE screen. When we tried the system with the test credit card the Thales rep gave us at their booth, it worked just fine.

It’s not as impressive as other airline payment solutions we saw at the show, which read NFC embedded into certain credit cards similar to NCR’s services, but not all credit cards have this feature. Until all banks modernize, a system which relies on swiping credit cards will continue to be the more universally useful option.

Like NCR, Thales believes that passengers will want to buy destination activities while in flight, and they’re probably right. It’s a time-saver after landing, and a good use of idle time on the plane.

They also believe we’ll want to order the inflight snacks and refreshments we want when we want them via a menu in the IFE, and why not. Virgin America, already has this on board their flights via their RED service IFE platform, and many other airlines see the benefit.

Thales thinks inflight shopping will be much better via IFE, and we’d have to agree. Being able to browse through items for sale onboard the same way we browse for purchases online, instead of being limited to leafing through the Duty-Free catalog, just makes sense. And we really want to see the end of flight attendants pushing Duty Free trolleys down the aisles. Honest, it’s antiquated and annoying.

The Thales IFE operating system makes the process of ordering anything on board as easy as choosing what movie to watch, so that’s a win for us passengers. It’s a win for airlines too, as simplified retail might get us to spend more of our travel dollars during flight.

If only both airlines and airports could improve on the selection of entertainment, products and services available, we’d be golden. There’s progress coming in that area too, but it can’t come soon enough.

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