When it comes to travel retail, airports get the lion’s share of attention; but train stations are rapidly catching them up, says Fiona Tindall

In travel retail, airports usually get all the glory, probably because of the high-profile investments going on around the world in creating airport ‘cities,’ which combine the functions of an international transport hub with business, leisure and shopping facilities.

But in the UK at least, train stations are strong contenders to airports – not just because they are beginning to catch up in terms of new commercial developments and how they are marketing themselves, but also because of the different demographics of the station ‘audience.’

Air travellers almost always fall into one of two categories – holidaymakers or business people. Both have disposable cash in their pockets, and time to kill waiting for a plane – usually, for several hours.

The demographics of train station crowds are strikingly different to those of airports. While you will still find holidaymakers and business travellers, you also find a lot of ‘passing trade’ – people on their lunch hour browsing the retail outlets on offer or eating and even local people who use the station as an extension of their High Street.

Many of the management teams at key UK stations are hard at work actively encouraging this second kind of shopper, creating special events and marketing campaigns to get across the message that stations are no longer just places you go to in order to catch a train to somewhere else.

These days, with many stations now featuring major retailers as well as many boutique shops, they can also be destinations in their own right, places where locals and office workers, as well as tourists and travellers, can enjoy whiling away some time. Plus, major stations are usually at the heart of a busy community and see huge amounts of passing traffic.

Many stations are now putting investment in their retail offering at the top of their commercial agenda – and with good reason.

The British used to be called a nation of shopkeepers. Today, though, we are a nation of shoppers, and retail therapy is the preferred past-time for many of us. Stations are brilliantly positioned to take advantage of the growth in shopping as entertainment – so many more people use them than airports!

Statistics just released by the transport regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, show that last year 1.7 billion passenger journeys were made. By comparison, the latest figures for total arrivals and departures by air for UK airports (from 2016) were 286.4 million.

Granted, air travellers tend to have more money at their disposal; but train stations can offer six times as many opportunities to get a retailer or a brand in front of the public. That’s just the people who actually use stations to catch trains: it doesn’t include all the people who now drop by at lunchtime, at weekends or when they just happen to be passing.

The bigger, more sophisticated stations are increasingly targeting this passing trade, as well as the travelling trade. We have worked closely with a number of stations and with rail service operators to create activities that turn train stations into destinations for shoppers.

London’s Paddington Station is a particularly good example. It has been leveraging its association with a certain bear from deepest, darkest Peru which shares its name and who is now celebrated with a statue on the concourse.

So in the run-up to Valentine’s Day 2017, we worked closely with Network Rail, which runs Paddington, and service operators GWR and Heathrow Express, plus design agency Magnet Harlequin and the licensors of Paddington Bear to help spread love around at the station where the much-loved children’s character first met the Brown family and embarked on a series of adventures.

Under the banner ‘Love Paddington,’ a range of festivities saw Network Rail, GWR and Heathrow Express celebrate recent improvements to the station. These included the restoration of Brunel’s original 1860 roof, a new ticket office and the opening of The Lawn area at the station, which boasts 40 retail and dining units.

Three days of activity ran from February 8th through to February 10th, kicking off with the distribution of 40,000 copies of a retail discount booklet containing a range of offers from 18 different retailers at Paddington.

On the 10th, Paddington hosted a full day of activities, led by an interactive social media experience. Consumers were incentivised to share their messages via social media with the chance to win a range of prizes donated by Paddington’s retailers.

During the day, Paddington’s passenger lounge area on the main concourse, the Lawn, saw food and drink retailers, including Leon, Starbucks, Accessorize, Patisserie Valerie, Savannah, Kiehl’s and The Cabin taking part with sampling activity for passengers, while passers-by were treated to live music all day.

Figures from Network Rail for the last quarter of 2017 showed that total retail sales across the 17 stations it manages grew by 3.5 per cent between October and December 2017, more than triple the average 1.1 per cent growth seen by the UK retail industry as a whole.

Between April and December 2017 over 630 million people travelled through or visited Network Rail managed stations, spending more than £594m in its retail stores. Between October and December 2017 over 66 million people – more than the entire population of the UK – visited a retail outlet in a managed station, spending almost £206m, with the festive season causing retail sales to spike in the gifting (+ nine per cent) and stationery (+ six per cent) categories.

Network Rail stresses a direct link between investment in stations and an increase in sales and satisfaction. Four of the top five stations for total sales growth in the last quarter of 2017 had seen significant recent investment, with Paddington (44 per cent) London Bridge (40 per cent), King’s Cross (11 per cent) and Birmingham New Street (11 per cent) appearing in a top five that also includes Cannon Street (12 per cent).

So the message for retailers and brands is clear: don’t dismiss railway stations in your strategic plans. They are increasingly a key space to engage the shopping public, with more and more people visiting them not just because they ‘have to’ catch a train, but also because they are clean, safe environments which offer an increasing range and variety of exciting retail and dining experiences.

Fiona Tindall is head of domestic retail at Blackjack Promotions, the leading staffing solutions, travel retail and experiential specialist, with operations in the UK & Ireland, and the Middle East. Everything it does is committed to connecting consumers with brand experiences that are exciting, engaging, immersive, and that ultimately provoke a real emotional response.