The travel retail boom: from a thoroughfare into a luxury oasis

Commercial services arising around railway stations are improving as travelling by train increases. How to best serve busy passengers when train stations turn into shopping locations, like airports have?

The morning of a business trip and you have one hour to kill—how would you spend the time? Would you grab a healthy organic breakfast and a new designer handbag or watch? Or would the daily paper and a takeaway coffee count as your only purchases? Until now, your mode of transport, or if you’re at an airport or a train station, has mostly dictated on what kind of objects you spend your time and money. But not any longer: the travel retail business we know from airports is about to land among train passengers.

The number of train passengers on large stations in Europe has increased a great deal, and with the growing population and more mobile ways of working, this trend is also reaching Finland. The stations are thinking more about the travelling consumers, and because of this services all the way from fashion stores and fine restaurants to shopping centres are popping up in connection with stations. The rest of the retail industry should follow keenly if they intend to benefit from this trend.

You must be where the consumers are

Railway stations have existed for more than two centuries, and the first bookstores were seen at stations already in the 1840s. Why have the stations woken up to diversifying their commercial offering only now? The reason behind this is the changing consumer behaviour brought on by prosperity: people have more money to spend and shopping is less systematic than before. When you have a dozen of fine shirts in your wardrobe, you don’t have to go out specifically to buy one more.

For retailers, it’s important to be where people already are. More and more cash flow comes from spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment purchases that are often made when travelling from one place to another.

‘Let’s say that every day on your way to work, you see a nice shirt in a shop window. If you spot the shirt on Monday, by Friday you will have come up with a reason to buy it. For instance, a tough work week is reason enough,’ says Kathrine Heiberg, CEO of Reteam Group, a company that helps shopping malls and other retail destinations operate according to people’s needs and wants.   

In addition, consumers are more demanding than before.

‘In the old days, people packed sandwiches and coffee when they took their family for a walk in the woods. Today, we expect to find a café in the woods, and if there isn’t one, it’s not a good forest,’ laughs Heiberg.

Get your target groups straight

‘A railway station, where people move around daily, has excellent preconditions for making the retail business work. However, making it work and making it work in an excellent manner, are two different things,’ says Heiberg.

As an example, Heiberg gives the Pasila train station that is currently being renewed. The Mall of Tripla shopping centre will soon be completed in connection with the station. As the area is built, the customer flow through the station will steadily grow. If anywhere, in Pasila the success of the travel retail concept is almost guaranteed.

But we must remember not to be lulled into the excellent starting point, Heiberg reminds. A busy place must cater to all kinds of needs and target groups: residents of the area, sports fans heading to the nearby arenas and daily commuters taking the train. At the same time, it must be figured out how customer flows are directed clearly so that no one is lost and that the shopping centre located in connection to the station is easily accessible—even for those who generally avoid shopping.

‘On average, half of consumers don’t like shopping, but still, everyone has to buy something at times. That’s why it’s important for retailers to be easily accessible and as inviting as possible.’

Architecture and curating are the keys to success

According to Heiberg, successful examples of railway stations’ commercial concepts include King’s Cross in London, Zürich Central Station and the train stations in Malmö and Stockholm. One common feature in all of these is architecture that supports business. The closer we are to the tracks, the more important it is that the purchases are quick. The transition from the rails towards shopping centres offering a wider selection is inviting and has been planned well.

‘The services close to the rails are necessary fast services: restaurants and cafés, shoemaker’s, laundries, newsagent’s. As the shopping centre’s selection is inviting also from afar, a commuter will pay attention to it even when in a hurry and he or she will organise time to visit it later.’

There already are many functional travel retail concepts that combine railway stations and shopping centres. Next, Heiberg would like to see the relationship between consumers and shopkeepers grow deeper. In an ideal situation, a shopping centre next to a station could work with its shopkeepers like a curator that collects a selection of topical matters for its customers.

‘A museum curator has put together an ensemble of works of art, and this gives the spectator a new perspective to the artist’s work. In a similar way, a shop window can give a new perspective on trends – for instance how to use a trendy color of the season not only for clothes, but for you bedroom, bathroom, cooking and more.'

Read also: Trade prospects in the city centres and shopping malls