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Is There Time for Good Buys?

By Alice Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 1997

Hundreds of hungry visitors stood in line for free chowder yesterday at Legal Sea Foods, an anchor restaurant at National Airport's new terminal. Hundreds more browsed in shops selling everything from luggage to lingerie.

On the second day of the $450 million terminal's open house, the dozens of restaurants and shops that make the domed building part shopping mall were popular attractions. But then, no one was in a hurry to catch a flight.

What's unclear is whether the shopping mall concept will work at National, where business travelers make up most of the traffic. National is not an airline hub, so few passengers change planes there -- depriving the market of a captive group of travelers with time to kill during layovers. Virtually all other airports with substantial retail space are hub airports.

So, will the 45,000 travelers who use National each day take the time to seek out chowder? Will they shop for gifts and necessities at the rate hoped for by airport planners? Time will tell, and while many visitors to the airport yesterday were dazzled by the new building, they were skeptical about the chances for retail success at the terminal, which opens Sunday.

"I don't come to the airport to eat or to shop," said Catherine Schenke, a nurse from Fort Washington who was browsing in one of the 30 shops that were open for business. "But I might be tempted to buy if the prices were good."

Some people said that when they use National as travelers, they're in too much of a rush to shop.

"Usually, when I fly out of here, I'm cutting it so close sometimes they're closing the [airplane] door, and I'm saying, `Let me in,' " said Peter Oppenheimer, 33, a lawyer from Alexandria who, with his wife, Stephanie, was seeing the new terminal for the first time.

David McBee, of Washington, also was ambivalent about the terminal's future as a shopping mall, despite his kudos for the building.

"It's aesthetically very appealing; I just hope it works," said the librarian, who said he was impressed with the array of stores in the terminal. "You could [shop], if you needed a gift for Uncle George, but I don't know if I would actually spend time shopping if I were traveling."

Stephanie Oppenheimer, explaining why she doesn't think she'll do much shopping at National, said, "I always assume the prices in airports are higher."

Those who have planned and arranged for the 38 shops that will operate at the terminal acknowledge that counting on Washingtonians to change their habits and learn how to shop on the way to their shuttle flights is a risk.

But retail planners think passengers' habits can be changed a bit, if the shopping is attractive. And prices will be competitive with those of local shopping centers, they insist: It's written into store leases.

"If people have the opportunity to shop and things are competitively priced, as they will be, then they will buy," said Steve Johnson, regional airport retail manager for Westfield Corp., the company that is managing the retail leases at the new terminal. "You have to give them the offerings first. All the research about National shows that, on average, travelers have about 60 minutes of . . . time [in the airport] before they have to board the airplane. So you have that going for you."

Success in the 65,000 square feet of commercial space in the new terminal is important to the airport's overall financial health, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is betting that a substantial chunk of its revenue -- to pay back the loans that are financing National's $1 billion renovation -- will come from leases on its commercial space.

According to documents submitted as part of its latest bond offering on Wall Street, the authority, which operates both National and Dulles International airports, estimates that $3 million in additional revenue will come from retail leases over the next year as the new terminal and its 35 gates go into full operation.

Diane Baker, 44, a Prince George's County teacher who lives in Fort Washington, is the kind of traveler Johnson wants plenty of.

She said she was delighted at the shops she saw yesterday at the open house and would plan trips to the airport to include time for purchases.

"I would certainly shop here now that I have seen the shops they have. And I find it very reasonably priced," said Baker, who estimated that she uses the airport once every two months.

Of course, the nearly 5,000 airline employees who work at National are something of a captive audience for the stores there.

"We shop everywhere," American Airlines flight attendant Connie Bucko, 33, of Falls Church, said of herself and her colleagues. "I am thinking I could stop and shop before and after work."

Melissa Warren, 29, a Catholic University administrator who lives in Washington, said she liked the shops and might even consider coming over to the terminal just to shop. "Pentagon City can be a zoo sometimes," she said.

"I can even see saying, `Let's come over and have dinner,' " said her husband, Brian Feeney, 34, who also works at Catholic.

Only nine of the terminal's food and beverage businesses were open over the weekend, and all did a brisk business, with lines of 15 or so people most of the time, as thousands of visitors with free tickets poured into the terminal.

Host Marriott Corp., which manages the food and beverage operations at National, has stressed to employees that, as far as service at an airport is concerned, speed is of the essence. Yesterday, the lines were moving.

"If you're moving the customer through from the time they give their order to the time they get it in two minutes, you're doing well," said Charlotte Sykes, a Host Marriott marketing consultant on duty yesterday.

For the eateries that were open, she declared the weekend's dress rehearsal a success.

On Sunday, the curtain rises for real.

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