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Passengers spending more at airports as unique options rise

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Friday, 15 Nov 2013 | 8:00 AM ET
Passengers sampling liquor at the Liquor Library at baggage claim at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas.
Source: The Liquor Library
Passengers sampling liquor at the Liquor Library at baggage claim at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas.

The Liquor Library operates in a unique space in Las Vegas—the baggage claim of Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport. For the past year, it has been offering passengers and their greeters the opportunity to shop for—and sometimes sample—beer, wine and liquor while waiting for checked baggage.

"There's no airport concession like this anywhere," said Liquor Library spokeswoman Diane Boyle. "People come to Las Vegas to get their party on, and we're the first stop."

Passengers are spending more money on the ground as air terminals are offering unique retail and local restaurant options, according to a new survey from the Airports Council International-North America.

Options range from a Mattel-branded shop at the Los Angeles International Airport to the trendy ICE Dishes and Drinks lounge, offering offering $14 cocktails and 25 premium vodkas at Chicago O'Hare.

Those new options to spend fit right in with a nationwide trend that hearkens back to the early 1990s, when Pittsburgh International Airport introduced its shop and restaurant-filled AIRMALL.

"Airports are listening more to passengers and introducing new retail and dining concepts. As a result, the spending trend in these categories is gradually going up," said Aneil Patel, economics and research manager for the Airports Council International-North America, which conducted the study.

(Read more: Airport dining upgraded with high-profile names)

During 2012, the median amount spent by departing passengers at North American airports was $5.15 on food and beverage and $3.31 on retail items.

In 2011, passengers spent an average of $5 per boarding on food and beverage and $3.10 on retail items. In 2010, it was $4.69 and $2.91, respectively.

That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, travelers spent $553 million on food and beverage items and $630 million on retail items during 2012 in U.S. airports alone.

In the ACI-NA survey, more than half of the airport respondents said they now have retail and dining options that are airport-specific or reflect a local or regional brand.

(Read more: NY-area airports lag in passenger amenities: Study)

For its survey, ACI-NA tallied information supplied by 94 airports representing 79 percent of passenger traffic in the United States and 48 percent of traffic in Canada.

Some other highlights from the survey:

  • Airports are making good use of carts and kiosks: 36 percent have retail carts and 39 percent have kiosks offering food and beverage items. This is not only convenient for passengers in a hurry, but creates opportunities for small, local businesses to try out new concepts at airports, said Patel.
  • Automated retail units (think upscale vending machines) are becoming more popular. They're in 50 percent of the responding airports, and most have gross sales of more than $100,000 per year.
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In addition to the Best Buy machines now familiar at many airports, Boston Logan International Airport has an Automatic Apparel kiosk installed in June 2012 that dispenses T-shirts, socks and underwear as well as sunglasses, roll-up ballet flats and toiletries—all at prices under $15.

Cosmetics companies are also using this model: 3FLOZ has kiosks selling travel-sized items at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and four other airports. Benefit Cosmetics also has automated kiosks at 10 airports with a goal of being in 25 by the end of the year.

To help promote these dining and shopping opportunities to travelers, airports are offering mobile apps. The ACI-NA survey found that 39 percent of airports now have their own mobile apps and of those, 78 percent actively use that tool to let passengers know what shops and restaurants are nearby and which may be offering specials.

(Read more: Food trucks now landing at airports, mobile lots)

"That's a good service for passengers," said Patel, "But one that's still in a bit of a trial-and-error phase for the airports."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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