Secret Marketer: Marketing and data have helped train stations and airports turn into shopping havens

Regular readers will know that I am something of a traditionalist. I am also a big fan of the high street and brands that have real substance – that have history and heritage, that sell products and services that can be touched and felt.

As a result, I’m constantly distressed by the negative sales figures of some of our great brands – Tesco, M&S, Morrisons, WH Smith, Thomas Cook – all of whom are struggling to make their bricks-and-mortar presence be relevant in the 21st century.

I was therefore encouraged to see a recent announcement from Network Rail which reported that like-for-like sales from some of this country’s major railway stations were up 3.67% in the second quarter – a period when high street sales were down 0.1%. The report went on to say that a billion people use its 18 national stations and they are outperforming the high street on both retail sales and advertising.

My job requires me to travel quite a lot – both in the UK and internationally. The changes to our train station and airport terminals have been revolutionary in the past few years. St Pancras International and Heathrow airport have almost become shopping destinations in their own right.

So what is the trick? What are they are doing that is proving elusive on the high street? One answer is data – stations and airports are able to provide accurate footfall data to brands enabling a better understanding of how people shop at these locations.

However, it is more than that. High streets have become self-fulfilling prophesies – lack of investment means that many brands have moved out and what is left is less attractive to new brands. And with lower footfall, they are unable or unwilling to invest. Train stations have done the opposite, investing heavily and attracting many new, and old, retail names. Commuters are arriving earlier and browsing more. The transport sector is no longer restricted to the commodity definition of ‘transit’.

And by enjoying this such footfall of customers in the right frame of mind, stations have become havens for advertising and ambient marketing. At brand ‘SM’, we have started to invest in more of this of late, and the results are encouraging. As a brand owner this is great news, and as a traditional marketer it also means that there is a very real alternative to a solely digital future – something that is not always the right answer for some of the products and services that we sell.

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