From air traffic control restrictions to on-the-ground industrial action, passengers face a summer of delay and frustration. How will air travel strikes and cancellations affect the buying mindset?
It started with easyJet cancelling thousands of flights from Gatwick. Now, from air traffic control to baggage handlers, industrial action is looming throughout the airport ecosystem. Strikes and cancellations will be commonplace across Europe this summer. Should travel retailers be worried?
Regardless of one’s personal take on strikes, industrial action is disruptive. That’s the point. And the right to strike is a fundamental liberty. That said, air passengers are almost certain to face delays and disruption when they travel this summer.
How this will affect travel retailers and F&B operators is yet to be seen. But broadly there are two schools of thoughts. Disruptions suppress mood and cause stress. Some individuals will not want to engage with retail as a result. But for others, the old adage of ‘retail therapy’ rings true. Could it be that disrupted travel could actually result in a boost in spend?
A 2023 study from Deloitte suggests so. It surveyed over 114,000 adults across 23 countries. A remarkable 80% of respondents said they made at least one splurge purchase in the last month to lift the mood. It’s behaviour that happens regardless of age or income level. And, despite stereotypes, men were more likely to indulge in this type of retail therapy.
Air travel strikes and cancellations: seeking comfort
But will this carry over into the airport space, a retail environment that inherently has greater complexities for a shopper to navigate. From unfamiliarity to time limits, does added disruption help or hinder the shopping mindset?
“I think it’s fair to assume that these disruptions will often create stress, frustration, and even anxiety,” says Bayu Prihandito, a certified psychology expert and founder of coaching business Life Architekture. He thinks delays and disruption are more likely to push passengers to seek comfort and distraction.
“This can indeed often lead them to spend time in retail spaces, as a way to keep busy.” He likens it to window shopping – which can of course lead to ‘retail therapy’. “They balance their negative feelings with a shopping dopamine hit.”
He points to personality types: introverts generally will seek out quiet spaces at times of stress, while extroverts are more likely to find what they need in retail areas.
For John Grant, Chief Analyst at travel data company OAG, the disruptions “broadly make little or no difference”. He agrees that additional refreshment revenues are likely, some of which must be covered by airlines. “But it may equally stop people from spending money on some higher-value, higher-margin items as they wait for updates and certainty about their travel plans.”
He notes that in some acute moments, some items may not be allowed airside to ease congestion in terminal areas. “The ability of shoppers to acquire these is further lessened.”
F&B and increased dwell time
According to airport amenities operator Airport Dimensions, the way passengers spend time at the airport has changed dramatically.
Its data shows that 71% will now eat at the airport, and, of all the time spent in the environment, bars and restaurants account for 17%. It makes sense that in a time of delay, dwell time in these businesses will increase.
“From a psychological perspective, eating and drinking are comforting actions during stressful situations,” Prihandito continues. It’s not just about filling time. Or the practical fact that humans need to fuel regularly.
“People might eat not only because they are hungry but also to pass the time and seek some kind of control and comfort in an unpredictable situation,” he adds. It would make sense, with significant disruptions looming, for airports and F&B operators to better communicate their offering to consumers in advance to take advantage of the additional time airside.
How might the psychology of delays affect inflight retail and F&B? This is a trickier one. On the one hand, allocated ‘treat’ spend may have been maxed out at the airport prior to boarding. But, if the delay starts, or increases, after boarding, there could be an uptick.
From comfort food to impulse purchase, the provision of duty free – and indeed, purchases via inflight entertainment, where offered – can provide a vital distraction. WiFi access too could be a way to capture spend.
Another factor to consider: pre-ordering won’t be affected by delays. It’s an area without much research. But if spend is captured prior to the flight, perhaps via pre-booking meals, that money isn’t going anywhere, regardless of delay.
So what can retailers do? For OAG’s Grant, really, it’s about being generally prepared. “Overall, every day can have a different delay profile. Regardless of that, the important for retailers is still both to be sufficiently stocked as well as have the staff flexibility to extend opening hours, should that be necessary.”
Take it from someone recently stuck for an extended period in a small non-Schenghen boarding area at an unnamed airport. There was just one tiny café. Regardless of delay, everyone remains happy until the snacks and beer run out. With disruption ahead, it’s time to bolster the contingency plans.
The air travel strikes and cancellations come as Europe’s aviation industry continues its “healthy revival” following the pandemic.