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Airport Retailers Struggling with Fewer Fliers

Airport Retailers Struggling with Fewer Fliers

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PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Getting people to fly is hard enough these days. Getting them to buy at the airport, too, isn't any easier.

"The only thing I am looking for is a cup of coffee or Coke and an outlet for my laptop," said Lloyd Sobel, 54, of Denver, before boarding a flight to Boise, Idaho, this week. "The only way an airport could make more money off of me is if they charged for people-watching."

Sparsely populated airport terminals spell trouble not only for the nation's airlines, but also for the airport boutiques, newsstands and restaurants that rely on travelers' impulse purchases.

"We're dependent on foot traffic here in a captive environment, an airport. If they are not coming in, they are not coming in," said Bill Newlin, who owns three Seattle's Best Coffee stands and two Ben & Jerry's stores in Pittsburgh's airport.

Mirroring the decline in sales at Pittsburgh International, Newlin said his business is down 15 percent from last year.

At Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, retail sales are down 12 percent since the war with Iraq began. In Boston, some Logan International Airport retailers said business was off 5 percent last month.

The Hudson Group, which runs 250 newsstands and specialty stores at 35 airports, has seen sales rise 3 percent rise this year, but that compares with 10 percent growth last year.

"It is a real science to operate at an airport," said Pauline Armbrust, editor of the Airport Revenue News. "The person in an airport is there to travel, to go from Point A to Point B. They aren't there to shop."

The languishing economy and fears of terrorism have hurt travel, as have the financial troubles of airlines, the Iraq war and the SARS virus. Last year, 473 million people flew domestically, a 12 percent drop from 2000, according to the Air Transport Association.

The decline came after many airports that once had little more than newsstands and sandwich shops greatly broadened their retail offerings.

Pittsburgh was among the first to expand in 1992, adding eateries such as TGI Friday's and Au Bon Pain, clothing stores such as the Gap and Victoria's Secret and specialty stores such as pen-maker Montblanc and Wilson's Leather.

Since then, airports including Denver and Detroit have included mall-like areas in expansion plans. Others have squeezed in stores wherever they can find space.

Analysts say larger companies with stores in several airports have fared better than their smaller counterparts because declines in some places are offset by increases at others.

Los Angeles International Airport also has fared well, said spokeswoman Nancy Castles, because travelers who are worried it will take longer to get on a plane are showing up earlier -- and shopping. Retail and duty-free sales were up 14 percent in the final three months of 2002 compared with the same period in 2000, she said.

However, war and fears about SARS were expected to cut into March sales, she said.

Many stores are counting on discounts to help business. Others are simply cutting costs.

"You can be successful with these numbers, but you have to chase the pennies," Newlin said. "But you don't want to chase pennies for too long."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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