RSS Feeds

Advanced search

You are in:


An eye for travel retail design

Robbie Gill, founder of London-based travel retail store design firm The Design Solution, chats to Joe Bates about the latest trends affecting the duty-free sector - including the pandemic

Robbie Gill The Design Solution

Joe Bates (JB): The Design Solution is a well-known name for many in the travel retail business, but for those who don’t know the channel well, can you give us some background about the firm?

Robbie Gill (RG): We started in 1984, but back then it was nothing to do with airports. It was all shopping malls, restaurants, department stores, chains or shops, all the normal stuff that design consultants did in that era.

We moved into duty free and travel retail when BAA were privatised and decided they needed people with shopping experience to work with their design teams because their architects knew how to park a plane but not how to sort out shops. That started us off in airports. We’ve really been flat out in that sector ever since.

There are three of us who run and own the company: me, Graeme Johns and Nick Taylor. We’ve worked in around 150 airports around the world. We are based in London with an office in Beijing to support our growing business in China. We work for airports designing their commercial areas and for the retailers - in some cases like Ireland’s Aer Rianta International [ARI] that can be the same company. We also create in-store brand experiences for companies such as Hennessy and Rémy Martin.

JB: Can you give us a few examples of the duty-free retailers you have worked with?

RG: We have a considerable footprint in the duty-free sector these days. In 2019, our biggest client by far was Dufry. We design all their flagship stores.

However, this year it’s been China Duty Free Group [CDFG]. We’ve been working flat out since the start of the year on two massive projects in Hainan, one with CDFG and one with Dufry. The Chinese are designing and building incredible stores. Places like Bangkok in Thailand have had incredible success through a massive amount of Chinese tourism, but it now feels like the Chinese are trying to keep the Chinese tourists for themselves. The long-term impact on those Asian countries might be substantial.

We also work with ARI in the Middle East and Ireland, as well as Baltona in Eastern Europe. We’ve worked with EverRich Duty Free in Taipei. It’s quite a wide bunch of clients.

We’re active in the F&B sector too. We designed the Irish pubs for The Restaurant Group in Heathrow Terminal 3, for instance. We are currently diving back into F&B in a big way at Montego Bay airport in Jamaica. We are keen to bring brands back into bars to create brand experiences in hospitality.

JB: How quickly do you think the airport retail sector can bounce back from the harmful impact of Covid-19 and do you think there will be some important changes in the way airport stores are designed?

RG: I don’t think there is any consensus about how the industry is going to get out of this but there are a couple of things we feel collectively might happen, one positive and the other less so.

The positive is that the general feeling from the people we’ve talked to is that tourism will bounce back very quickly. It will get back to where it was assuming we get the world vaccinated and there will be continual testing.

The opposite is felt about business travel. We will be able to successful work ‘abroad’ in our own countries thanks to online meeting platforms. What our own experience has taught us is that you don’t need to travel as much as you used to.

In terms of the stores themselves, our clients are tending to say to us that some of the regimes that have been put into retailing over the past 15 months, the social distancing, the plastic screens, all of that stuff, will go. Many of the initiatives that airports have been taking have been driven by a point in time. No one has told us you need to design bigger restaurants because tables are always going to be spaced two metres apart, for instance. That’s not happening.

One change we have seen is the additional screening for people going into the airport and also when they arrive in the country. People are whisked off to hotels for quarantining. Everybody who is in the airport has been screened. In a weird way, the airport is now a safer environment than in the high street.

JB: We hear a lot about the need for travel retail to compete with e-commerce. How much progress is being made and how is technology affecting store design?

RG: For many years, there was very little technology anywhere in duty free, but gradually technology was introduced; for example, if a shopper was into single malts, you could tap into an iPad on the wall unit and it would give you the history of the brand, the views of the distillery etc. Nowadays you can also dump your bottle onto a QR code, and it will also give you a lot more information about the product, its intrinsics and provenance.

When it comes to the industry moving to an omnichannel model, that’s a very tech-driven issue with several channels talking to each other. It hasn’t impacted on the store design process, but we are using increasing levels of digital in-store.

There’s a balance to be struck between technology enhancing the shopping experience and avoiding it becoming more of an obstruction to the tactile and sensory experiences in-store. One thing we’ve seen a lot recently is the overuse of digital screens. There is the danger of creating digital noise overload which takes away from the product itself and the sense of calm and ease and that personal experience, which is more likely to make consumers engage with the product.

JB: One of the first and most memorable liquor projects The Design Solution has worked on is The Loop stores at Dublin airport with their The Irish Whiskey Collection stores, the first of which opened in Terminal 2 back in 2010. Can you tell us more about this project?

RG: The Irish Whiskey Collection store won a Frontier Award a year after the terminal opened. A second Irish Whiskey Collection store stocking over 120 Irish whiskey brands opened The Loop walk-through shopping area in 2015. Both shops blend the heritage of Irish whiskey with a contemporary edge. 

The materials used, such as polished copper aimed to evoke the contemporary masculinity of a traditional gentleman’s club. The walls featured back-painted glass in black and amber back-illuminated acrylic, which added a glowing tone to the store. 

JB: Your most recent store design at Dublin airport also features an extensive range of Irish and international gins…

RG: That design was about bringing to life the narrative of the whole gin culture that was booming at the time. We worked with ARI in terms of creating an experiential feel, introducing elements of mixology. We researched bars in London where all those craft gin bars were opening up. There was also pressure from the retailer to fill out the shelf, but we consciously tried to create space for media display and theatre around the product.

JB: How important is creating a sense of place when it comes to travel retail liquor store design?

RG: We absolutely believe in a sense of place in airports and in duty-free shops. Airports and duty-free operators are increasingly finding it difficult to compete on price, so all those airport exclusives, shopper engagement and theatre are ways to lessen the focus on price. We have to make an environment that captivates people as they are walking through. If we can give them enough reasons to be entranced by something a bit different, we stand a lot better chance of converting them.

Consider our Tequileria [with Dufry] at Cancun airport. It’s an extravagant, dynamic, colourful high-ceiling store that epitomises the characters of Mexico and of Tequila. We want to create a different character for each of our shops so that they aren’t just another duty-free store. Liquor is a difficult category because probably 90 per cent of what every shop sells around the world is identical. Yet there are touch points where we can make a point of difference, particularly around localisation.

At the end of the day clients like Dufry are commercial retailers. They want their walls packed with product so the opportunities are actually quite limited, so we have a limited palette of tools to work with but must make an impact.

An interesting example of that was at Lisbon airport in Portugal where we created a Premium Port shop-in-shop for The Nuance Group/LFP as part of a wider design for the airport’s commercial areas. With limited wall space to play with we adopted the ceilings as an expressive canvas, and it became one of the most distinctive elements of the store. Wherever we work, we create commercially effective designs that also contain a little local magic through a special aspect of the store design that helps give each location its own, distinct identity.

16 July 2021