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Airport's mall leads nation in per-passenger spending

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By Bonnie Pfister
Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

Fewer passengers grace the corridors of the Airmall at Pittsburgh International Airport, but those who do shop with gusto.

The 100-shop Airmall last year posted sales of $13.60 per passenger, the highest of any major American airport, according to the 2008 Fact Book of the trade journal Airport Revenue News.

Although the decline of once-dominant carrier US Airways contributed to a major dropoff in passenger traffic, the number of luxury boutiques relative to the small traveler base has propelled the Findlay airport to the top of per-passenger sales for the past several years, figures show.

Sales at upscale shops such as L'Occitane en Provence skincare and fragrances, gift shops Zozo and Spirit of the Red Horse, Brooks Brothers, Brookstone consumer products, and retailers of Godiva chocolates, Swarovski crystal, and diamond jewelry help push Pittsburgh into the upper tier.

"Your airport is set up perfectly for retail," said Pauline Armbrust, CEO of the company that publishes Airport Revenue News. Older, larger airports disperse shopping space haphazardly among multiple terminals, but 16-year-old Pittsburgh International was designed with retail in mind.

"The 'X' shape gives the stores high exposure to every passenger walking through," Armbrust said. The closure several years ago of the exterior E Concourse, where smaller commuter planes landed, helped funnel passengers into the single terminal.

Jay Kruisselbrink, vice president of Airmall operator BAA Pittsburgh, said his was among the first airport retailers in the United States to offer pricing akin to what shoppers would find at outside retailers.

Allegheny County auditors regularly verify that, he said, and other airports have followed suit.

"We don't believe in street pricing because we're nice people; we believe in it because it's a smart business practice," Kruisselbrink said. "If (consumers) go to McDonald's and pay an extra 25 percent, they're sophisticated enough to know that. So they're not going to turn around and spend $500 in Johnson and Murphy, because they feel like they're getting ripped off.

"If people feel like they're getting good value for their money, they'll spend more money."

Agnus Berenato, women's basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, is a frequent traveler who said the Airmall offers more quality and variety than most of the airports she knows, and is practically the only place she shops.

"You have to be there an hour early, and I'm not one to sit," Berenato said. A mother of five, she frequently looks for birthday gifts, and for a few things for herself. "I love shoes, I love heels. Nine West: they always have my size. Eleven is tough to find.

"My team, too," she added. "They love Nine West. They love Victoria's Secret."

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