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).

In the meantime, they're hitting that cycle at just the point where it converges with retail's calendar -- and they're doing it with some local flavor. In Portland, the city's mammoth book store Powell's has an airport outlet, as does clothing manufacturer Pendleton Woolen Mills and Beaverton, Ore.-based sportswear makers Columbia and Nike (NKE). At Boston's Logan International, local mainstays Black Dog, Vineyard Vines and Life Is Good all have stops along the concourse. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has a branch of its museum store at O'Hare.

Bigger chains aren't willing to be left out of the mix. About five years ago, Best Buy (BBY) began installing automated kiosks in airports across the country to dispense smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, MP3 players, high-end headphones and other items. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is basically a sprawling upscale mall with shops for high-end labels including Michael Kors, Ermenegildo Zegna, Bulgari, Mont Blanc and Salvatore Ferragamo.

So why should travelers consider doing their holiday shopping along the concourses? For one, they're running out of excuses not to. That NCR Travel survey suggested that 45% more travelers would do their holiday shopping in these places if they would ship directly and not force them to take yet another carry-on. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is just one of the airports taking them up on that challenge by "offering to ship purchases of more than $50" for free.

Time management is obviously a plus, but there may be an even bigger benefit to getting gifts before you board or after you exit. When airports offer branches of local retailers, whole items are a tough find elsewhere; picking up an item can give your gift something that most retailers just can't. It's a small indication that you were thinking of someone else in your travels and thought enough of them to pick up a little something you couldn't just find in a local mall. It doesn't have to be an eight-foot, $1,200 plush pterodactyl or $200 blanket. It's just a way of telling someone they're on your mind even when they're not in your direct field of vision.

Airports are well aware of it, and are filling storefronts with local shops for the same reason they woo local brewers and restaurants to fill their eatery spaces. They want to stand out and give you a reason to spend your money there instead of some other place with the same stuff. Just by adding such places to the mix, airports are trying to convey that they're unique -- and that such difference has value. That's just as true under the Christmas tree or in a stocking as it is along the concourse or near the gate.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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