The World's Largest Resource for the Cart, Kiosk, and Temporary Retail Industry

Fall 2008 Projecting a Powerful Retail Identity at the Airport

Determine Your Image

As a visual merchandiser for a wide range of retailers, I often find myself talking with retailers about their businesses, focusing in on what retailers really sell. Products are exchanged between retailers and their customers, yes, but what’s really being sold isn’t sitting on the shelf.

If a shopper in an airport or mall or any other retail venue sees several jewelry carts, what makes that customer visit one cart over the other? Hint: It’s not the jewelry.

imageFor example, one cart might sell jewelry for the successful career woman while another might sell jewelry that’s fun and casual. The cart that targets career women sells success, since a well-accessorized woman conveys upwardly mobile professionalism. The casual-jewelry cart sells fun and excitement. Product categories aside, if you want to establish a powerful retail identity in an airport or a mall, the first step is to ask yourself what you really sell.

Once you’ve determined the image you want to project, you can reinforce and layer it throughout your visual presentation. The messaging strategy starts with your signs acting as passive salespeople and extends to the right product intensity and placement, with the various display elements working together to guide your customers’ purchasing decisions along the way to your register. But first a word about how airport retail is different than selling in any other venue.

Rushed, distracted shoppers

Establishing a retail identity based on what you really sell is vital for any retail business, no matter where it’s located, but in an airport setting, it’s absolutely critical. Why? Because of the stressful, harried nature of airport travel.

Fliers have an important and pressing goal to achieve before they even consider shopping: making their plane. They have to look for way-finding signs, get to the right terminal, the right counter for checking, the shortest security line and the right gate. Even after they clear security, where retailers are often busier because travelers are at or close to their gate, anxiety levels can remain high while fliers stay on guard for flight announcements.

imageHow can a specialty retailer create an effective airport identity that cuts through all of this mental clutter to make an impression in just seconds that draws in shoppers? First, start with your signs.

Signs: your unpaid salespeople

Signs sell. They capture the customer’s attention, relay key data and direct the customer’s buying decision. Experienced operators recognize this and consider signs their silent selling partners, their passive salespeople.

Signs have a hierarchy, starting with the one on the roof of your cart. Like any storefront signage, the sign on your roof should immediately convey not only your product selection but also your target customer and price points.

Take a look at the two accessories cart logos here. The first features colorful, fanciful lettering that immediately conveys to shoppers that the retailer stocks fun and casual popular-price-point merchandise. Elevate the logo with a lighter, more-sophisticated typeface offset by a subdued mustard background and the message changes to that of mid- to high-price-point products for the woman seeking finer goods.

In these logo examples it’s easy to see how key information about the retailer is being conveyed, but it’s often harder to recognize that your signage is conveying these images to your customers every day, even if you didn’t give much thought to your signage when you launched your cart. Customers are making judgments about your business well before they’re close enough to your cart to view your products up-close. The question is: Are you broadcasting the right messages to potential customers to bring them closer with an eye to buy, or are the messages you’re sending falling flat? (Or even worse, are the messages you’re projecting pushing customers away?)

imageOnce the customer approaches your cart, it’s important to entice them to shop every side of your display with category signs that indicate the type of product housed on each side. Ideally, carts have three stories to tell-one on each wide side and another at the end cap. For example, an accessory cart may have signs saying, “Necklaces,” “Headbands” and “Brooches.” A customer who sees the “Necklaces” sign while approaching a cart immediately understands the idea: “This side of the cart has necklaces; take a look at the other sides to see what other accessories we have.”

Price signs, the third layer of signage, indicate affordability. Similarly priced merchandise can be grouped together for easy shopability (prompting the shopper to think, “I’m willing to spend $25. Which pair of earrings do I want in this $25 group?”). Prestige or higher-price-point carts might merchandise by style (“Contemporary,” “Classic” or “Specialty”).

Within each group, brands may be identified with additional signage, followed by conversational signs that explain more about the product and feature-price signs when appropriate. Retailers who really make their signage work for them love conversational signs that take a few paragraphs to point out product features and benefits, calling them “co-producers of service” because the signs can relay key product data to a customer while the human salesperson is busy with another customer.

Take for example the sign hierarchy plan-o-grams shown here for two Texas airport tenants. The tea retailer’s visual merchandising strategy shows premium-priced core products merchandised eye to waist level, with each product supported by a conversational sign. Mid-priced or peripheral products are displayed below waist level. Focal displays are shown on the top shelf unit.

imageThe jewelry retailer showcases its premium jewelry sets and special pieces at eye and waist level, with popular-price-point merchandise below waist level on the wide sides of the cart and on the end cap.

Taking into account the dominance of airport way-finding signs, though, establishing a retail identity through prominent signage is only part of equation when it comes to cutting through the airport clutter.

Product intensity, placement convey price

Another way that customers make judgments about your business far before they’re within reach of your salesperson is by analyzing your product intensity. For this reason, your merchandising intensity needs to support and extend the identity you’ve established through your signage, or you’ll be sending your best future customers conflicting messages. Shoppers, no matter how relaxed, don’t like receiving conflicting messages about what a store is or isn’t, and are apt to turn their attention elsewhere if you make them work too hard to figure it out. Airport shoppers are definitely in no mood.

When it comes to product intensity, the rules are very straightforward: Popular-price-point retailers intensify the amount of product displayed to convey affordability. In contrast, well-spaced products result in an enhanced value perception in the shopper’s mind.

The right product intensity not only helps you create a more powerful retail identity, but also helps customers understand that they’re in the right place. If they’re in the mood to purchase a popular-price-point piece of jewelry but hesitate to approach your cart because they can’t really figure out what your general pricing strategy is, they might hesitate, and in an airport environment that can be enough to cost you a sale. The more effectively you can manage your customers’ expectations by broadcasting your price points, the more likely you are to sell to the customers who approach.

imageProduct intensity can be a very powerful selling tool. The Corioliss Hair Styling Tools cart shown here carries premium products while emphasizing the buying experience. The natural strategy for this product is less intensity. In addition to setting the upscale stage with key props and fixtures, the wide side of the cart houses a large framed mirror to reflect the customer’s image while the sales associate demonstrates the product’s use in an intimate, soft and feminine environment. This merchandising approach forms an immediate and positive emotional attachment to the product and the salesperson.

The end-cap display reinforces the product benefits advertised on the company’s large blade posters (It’s all about the curl!) and uses a video demonstration loop to convey additional product benefits and lifestyle marketing messages.

Conversely, the handbags cart shown here featuring popular-price-point handbags is intensely merchandised to visually convey that pricing strategy in an instant. Visibility across the unit is achieved despite the high product intensity with the use of slotted standards and hang-rail fixtures.

The high product intensity also focuses the customers’ eyes on the product rather than a lot of blank negative space-a common display problem with handbags. Because all bags are similar in style, product categorization is achieved by color, with warm colors on one side, cool on the other and the end cap housing featured products.


Reinforce your message

Remember, the key to effective visual merchandising is to match your visuals to your product and customer, not to make your cart look the “prettiest” it can be. The purpose of your display isn’t just to stand out in the crowd-it’s to attract the maximum number of customers most likely to buy from you and help you close as many sales as possible.

To achieve those display goals, start with the core “What am I really selling?” question. Reinforce that message throughout your signage, choosing the product intensity and placement strategies appropriate for your cart, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a lasting image in fliers’ minds.

The best part? Investment in these visual merchandising strategies is minimal, while the effect on your bottom line is limitless. There’s no telling how far you can grow with a powerful airport retail identity.

Mistake #1: Signage that doesn’t help you sell

Fortunately, carts and kiosks are exceptionally visible in the middle of airport foot traffic. But that doesn’t mean that airport retailers can simply turn on the lights and ring up record-breaking sales. Especially in airports, where travelers are usually focused on making a flight or finding their baggage, retailers need to use any and every available strategy to get noticed-and that means investing in signage that helps you sell.

Professionally produced, prominent signage that fits the image of your business is a must. Signage that helps you sell conveys to potential customers at a distance what’s being sold and, if possible, your pricing strategy (luxury, value, etc.). Once the customer is drawn closer, additional product signage needs to convey specific prices as well as product features and benefits.


The two photos here from a skincare cart work together to draw the customer in. The green sign bottom center has just a few words of large type that convey what’s for sale (mineral rich Dead Sea products) and can be seen from a distance. When the customer comes closer, the more-detailed sign near the mirror conveys the benefits of using the product (protecting the skin’s moisture, etc.). These signs walk the customer through the process of understanding the product, pointing out the benefits the company believes are most important to the consumers they target.

Signs that help you sell stand ready to relay key selling information if you’re busy with another customer or if your customer just wants to browse without your assistance. They’re your silent salespeople. But only if you hire them.

Mistake #2: Too many price points

Nothing makes it easier for customers to buy than a single price point. There is an almost-instantaneous invitation for customers to browse through a selection of products knowing how much they’re going to spend. It becomes a matter of “Which one do I like?”

Carts are known to offer impulse or value-priced products. Supporting this perception through a single grab-and-go pricing strategy makes conversion easier. The method has proven successful with $10 watch carts, $10 sunglasses carts, etc.

imageHere’s a photo of a $12 handbag cart that projects its pricing strategy to quite a distance, then uses a center focal color to draw the female eye to the bags. Of course, if your product lineup precludes grab-and-go pricing, you can allocate single price points for each of the three display sides of your cart or group products in a way that fits your needs.

But resist the temptation to make the pricing groups smaller and smaller. Grab-and-go pricing is only effective if prices are the same across large groups of products and can be immediately understood by the customer. Six groupings of items, each $5 less than the next, is not grab-and-go pricing. Two groups, each with one price point (an average of three original price points) will display more effectively and sell faster.

Mistake #3: Products with no prices

If grab-and-go single pricing is not possible, every item on display needs to be clearly priced. For the hurried shopper, there are few things more off-putting than having to wait for a salesperson to find out how much something costs. How many times have you shopped a retail store where you decided not to buy because the price wasn’t on the product and you didn’t feel like hunting it down? Only you know. How many customers have left your cart simply because they couldn’t be bothered to ask your sales staff for a price? You’ll never know.

Check out the handbags photo above again. Notice that the $12 price point is indicated on five signs-and that’s just from one vantage point. There’s no wiggle room for this cart’s customer to be confused about prices. Less confusion means more sales. Of course excellent visual merchandising is designed to get your cart noticed, but the end game is using your display to fill the till.

Mistake #4: An unfocused display

Having three open display sides can be a double-edged sword for cart operators. While it certainly makes it easy for shoppers to view products, it also doesn’t leave much room for error. Inline retailers can have a display here or there that doesn’t really work to sell that product, but the store will be fine. A side of your cart that isn’t selling for you is not an option if you want profits. If your display is over-packed, disorganized, lacking product, or any other symptom of bad visual merchandising, not only is it difficult for customers to shop your cart, but your display also will turn off would-be customers.

Start by understanding how customers shop your specific product line. For example, most customers shop home accessories by end-use. This means that grouping all kitchen accessories on one side and living room accent pieces on another and so on. The end-use groupings will give you a higher-impact display than if the categories were mixed and the products were displayed according to, for example, color.


On the other hand, if all items share the same category grouping, such as the fashion scarves shown in the photos here, color-groupings work well. Note the price groupings and signage on the bottom shelves in the enlarged photo.

With color groupings like this, one side of the cart might display scarves with warm tones (reds, oranges, yellows) while another might be cool tones (greens, blues, violets) while the endcap might showcase neutrals (off-whites, tans, etc.). Take a look at how your customers shop your products to determine the best grouping strategy for your cart.

Mistake #5: Poor customer service

The final mistake involves your display and a lot more. Yes, great customer service has a positive impact on sales, but also remember that the benefits of excellent service extend far beyond the balance sheet. In the traveler’s mind, you’re not only a brand ambassador for your product and your business, but also for your airport, maybe even your city or country, in the international traveler’s mind.

Be a great brand ambassador. Make your customer’s buying experience at the airport a positive one from your display to your attitude and you’ll ensure that visitors leave with a pleasant memory of their trip.

Natalie Tan

Natalie Tan, president of Retail Excellence Consulting in Burnaby, British Columbia, has more than 25 years' experience creating effective shop atmospherics for retailers of all sizes throughout North America. She serves on the board of British Columbia Shopping Centers Association and is an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Visit her website at or send her an email at',3,'',1,'',3,'list',0,100

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