High-end retail stores poised to win travelers' dollars

Forget about the hot-dog vendors and newspaper stands. Passengers at National Airport will soon have the option of browsing through designer clothing and jewelry or chewing on a succulent steak while waiting for a flight.

Specialty retailers such as Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret and Taxco Sterling are landing this month in National Hall in the new airport terminal, which boasts 60,000 square feet of retail space.

In fact, National Hall is on the cusp of a retail trend that started about four years ago when restaurants began trying to win travelers' dollars by opening in the only place people seem to have free time these days - airports.

Since then, retailers have lined up to grab a piece of the action.

According to Westfield Inc., a Los Angeles-based company hired to develop retail at National Hall, retailers tend to sell two to three times more in airports, where the traffic is relatively constant throughout the day, than they do in shopping centers.

Other big airports - including those in Denver; Charlotte, N.C.; and Pittsburgh - have redesigned their terminals in recent years to make them more shopper-friendly.

"The airports are starting to catch on that people would like to have the same amenities that they would have at home," says Wendy Walker, who owns the eclectic crafts shop Of Kindred Spirits, one of the tenants in National Hall.

The search to land big-name retailers for National Hall started almost immediately after Westfield was hired 2 1/2 years ago.It has signed leases with companies ranging from the Smithsonian Museum Store to the Disney Store to the Gap.

"You have a captive audience of people with time to kill who have money in their pockets," says Pamela Rucker, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in the District."As it stands now, at a lot of airports there is a limited number of items to spend money on."

Host Marriott Services of Bethesda, which is handling the restaurant side of development, has lined up such local favorites as Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and the Virginia Beverage Co.in addition to national chains such as California Pizza Kitchen and Frozen Fusion.

"The axiom is that people in airports . . . don't require a lot of variety because they're part of a captive audience," says Paul Brown, general manager for Host Marriott Services.

Market research conducted by the company, however, showed that while the vacation traveler tends to want a hamburger from McDonald's or a pretzel from Auntie Anne's, the business traveler will treat himself to a steak at Great Steak & Potato or the catch of the day at Legal Sea Foods.

"A lot of people, business travelers especially, are looking for something that's a step above and beyond the normal fast-food experience," Mr.Brown says.

And because there's a perception that airport food costs a lot more than anywhere else, all of the restaurants have a clause in the lease that says they must stay within 10 percent of prices on their outside menus.

"The key to this thing being successful is that the passenger needs to feel like he's not being taken advantage of because he's in an airport," says Steve Johnson, regional manager of airport retail for Westfield.

Koo Koo Roo, a division of Hamburger Hamlet, will jump into the airport retailing game this month when its opens a store at National Hall.Company executives say they plan to use their fast- food kiosk as a test.If it works, the company may build restaurants in airports nationwide.

"The exposure from the amount of people going through the USAir terminal is really why we're doing this," says Jack McShane, executive vice president of the Beverly Hills, Calif., chain of fast-food restaurants.

There could be an even bigger payoff for airport retailers if National Hall really takes off.With the airport so close to the city and on Metro's Yellow and Blue lines, developers hope that shopping in the new terminal becomes as popular a destination for area residents as Union Station has