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TheStreet Open House

Airports' Holiday Retail Brisk, Unique

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The first retail decor I saw this holiday season wasn't in a mall or big-box store, but in Portland International Airport.

On Nov. 9, while entering the airport to catch a flight to Philadelphia, I was greeted by a snowman and strands of white lights trapped in the display case of a revolving door. Why had someone trapped him in this glass-and-steel purgatory, sentencing him to spin for days on end like a Franz Kafka character until the depressing purpose of the exercise was revealed?

If the purpose was to inspire some holiday travel or keep a specific airline in mind, that message didn't land. Moving past the check-in counters toward the airport concourse, however, that doomed snowman's mission became clear: He's there to get you to shop, just like any good mall decoration.

Like a less incisive version of David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries" elf, he's there ostensibly to corral the harried masses into the retail ramp before the blue-shirted TSA agents scan them through the chutes. He's a reminder that the trip you're about to take just cut into precious shopping time, or that you failed to bring back anything from the destination you're returning from to share with the folks you left behind.

He's the greeter for the arrivals, guilt for the departures and just an illuminated tap on the shoulder for folks there to pick up or drop off. "I know you're not staying long, but wouldn't that Toblerone in duty-free make a great stocking stuffer?"

He's persistent, but he's working. His twinkling lights were still aglow when I hit the airport again 10 days before Christmas. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that it's been a while since airport shopping was limited to cheap sweatshirts with the destination's name on them, afterthought plastic snow globes piled beside the magazine stand or even perfume and booze at the duty-free. It also wasn't an anomaly, as Christmas trees and strands of lights greeted us upon arrival in Philadelphia as well.

It's a part of the holiday retail landscape, and it's damned effective. A survey conducted this year by NCR Travel found that 24% of holiday travelers are likely to pick up one of their gifts at the airport. In fact, $630 million (or 8.3%) of the $7.56 billion airports make each year from non-airline revenue now comes from retail, according to Airports Council International. That's more than flyers spend on food and beverages ($533 million), services ($378 million) or hotels ($105 million).

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