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At many airport newsstands, transients on their way to destinations unknown tend to pick up things they can use on the trip—mainly bottled water and neck pillows. Yet around the country, passengers are also making room in their carry-ons for mustard, popcorn and pink headphones, among other surprising items.
As airports around the country sharpen their focus on customer satisfaction and increase their reliance on income from food and beverage, specialty retail and other non-aeronautical revenue, concourses are getting more comfortable and shop offerings are becoming more creative. From gourmet sweets to sportswear and even vinyl records, CNBC recently canvassed major U.S. airports to find out their best-selling items—and the results were both surprising and wide ranging.
Toffee, cacti and 'scorpions'
At Denver International Airport, almond toffee made in nearby Grand Junction by Enstrom Coffee & Confectionary is a top seller, while at the gourmet 1897 Market at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, locally-made Sweet Girl Cookies and Queen Charlotte's Original Pimento Cheese are customer favorites.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport does a brisk business in "scorpion suckers" (hard candy with a scorpion in the center), and racks up a million dollars in sales of cactus plants each year.
"We have a variety of different shapes and sizes packaged so that travelers can take one home with them," said Heather Lissner, spokeswoman for the Aviation Department of the City of Phoenix, "We also offer a petting cactus, which is easy to touch compared to the other varieties."
Pigs are a thing in Cincinnati and San Francisco
Flying Pig products—which include pig-themed hats, stuffed animals, accessories and bags of Pig Poop (chocolate covered peanuts)—sell briskly in the shops at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Why flying pigs? During the mid-to-late 1800s, Cincinnati was the largest pork processing center in the country, earning itself nickname 'Porkopolis.' Winged pigs are one way the city embraces its past.
Speaking of pigs, San Francisco International Airport (which recently added a pig to its team of therapy animals that visit with passengers) sells locally-made Candied Bacon Caramel Corn from Chunky Pig that's said to be flying off the shelves at the Skyline News Shop in Terminal 3.
That's a lot of popcorn
At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Garrett Popcorn, a modern hometown favorite, is a perennial top seller. Combined, the two Garrett Popcorn Shops at O'Hare sold more than 47,000 one-gallon tins of popcorn (assorted varieties) during 2016, at an average price of $34.50 a tin, said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Sweet Beginnings Honey, made by bees at the airport's apiary, also sells well at the O'Hare Famers Market.
Something for the sports nuts
During February alone, the shops at Norman Mineta San Jose International sold more than 15,000 bottles of water, more than 200 Belkin phone chargers and—as one can imagine—and equal number of Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry-branded clothing.
As it happens, sports-related merchandise is a big seller at other airports as well, especially when teams and players are winning. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport sells lots of sports memorabilia, but also moves around 40 cases of locally made ballpark-style mustard each month. Both Stadium and Bertman brand mustards are sold at the airport, with Stadium outselling Bertman by 15 to 20 percent, Airmall reports.
Carpeting for your feet, and records
Sasquatch and Big Foot-branded items are popular right now at the Made in Oregon stores at Portland International Airport. Store manager Candace Vincent said the airport stores sold more than $1 million of carpet-themed products over the last two years, based on the airport's formerly iconic teal flooring.
And at Newark Liberty International Airport, travelers have been snapping up vinyl records from the shop at CBGB L.A.B (lounge and bar) operated by OTG in Terminal C.
"We don't report volumes, but I can tell you it's the top seller in that retail concept," said Eric Brinker, an OTG vice president. "People are buying record players in the shop as well."
In Houston, where OTG is working with United Airlines to redo the dining and retail offerings in its terminals at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, there's also a surprising best-seller.
"We sell tons of headphones in Houston," said Brinker, "And for some reason we sell more pink headphones in Texas than in any other place in the country."
—Harriet 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. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.