Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The weird world of in-flight retail

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
SkyMall -- a retail catalog available on most U.S. domestic flights -- is famous for its quirky retail offerings. Director of merchandizing Darin Geiger says quirky items and sports paraphernalia are both big sellers. This tree face -- donning a football cap -- caters to both needs.
SkyMall -- a retail catalog available on most U.S. domestic flights -- is famous for its quirky retail offerings. Director of merchandizing Darin Geiger says quirky items and sports paraphernalia are both big sellers. This tree face -- donning a football cap -- caters to both needs.
HIDE CAPTION
Football Forest Face, multiple airlines
Garden yeti, multiple airlines
Singing gondolier, multiple airlines
R2D2 robot, multiple airlines
Smartbulb, multiple airlines
Mini Cooper, airBaltic
Shoes, airBaltic
Happy marriage cake, Icelandair
Scratch cards, Ryanair
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • To make money, airlines are pushing everything from craft beer to cars
  • In addition to Mini Coopers, airBaltic sells branded shoes
  • airBaltic was also the first airline to accept Bitcoins for payment

Each month, Business Traveller gets inside the world of the road warrior, exploring the issues, trends and lifestyle of the traveling executive.

(CNN) -- In many ways, airplanes are a retailer's dream come true. They serve a captive -- often bored -- audience who have proven their income is disposable enough to afford air travel.

It's no wonder that in the last few years, airlines have adapted an increasingly sophisticated approach to parting customers from their money.

"By nature, airlines are mass transit operators, and they didn't necessarily have any retail savviness when they first started to unbundle -- it was very much low-hanging fruits, like chocolate bars and Pringles up and down the aisle," says Dan Thompson, senior vice president of global strategy at GuestLogix, a provider of in-flight retail solutions.

"Now, there's a new sense of maturity in retail strategies with airlines," he adds.

Lately, carriers have replaced mass market beers with craft brews, standard chips with locally sourced gourmet goodies, and added ticketed events to the retail roster. In 2011, AirBaltic even experimented with selling cars on board their flights, becoming the first carrier to do so.

Luxury sharing for yachts and jets
Getting more travel for your money
Are 'pay as you go' hotels good value?

"We think of flight as a travel megastore; we expect to make money for the products that we offer," says Jannis Vanags, AirBaltic's vice president for communications.

In many ways, the Latvian carrier has been a trailblazer when it comes to its retail offerings. Vanags claims it was the first airline to introduce bicycle rentals, and the first to accept Bitcoin as a form of payment. It was also one of the first airlines to allow non-passengers to make surprise purchases (think roses and champagne) for their friends in the air. Currently, customers can also buy AirBaltic-branded shoes on the flight.

"Some things have been batted around in terms of thinking outside the box, in terms of 'how wacky can we get?' and in a sense, the sky is the limit -- excuse the pun -- for what you can sell on board," says Thompson. Mainly, though, he notes that it's the tried-and-true that entice customers the most.

Read: The supersonic plane without windows

"Really, passengers will spend on something that enhances their trip, and means something to them because of the experience they're in at the moment. It's hard to imagine them going on board and buying a sofa that will be delivered back to their apartment."

The odd factor

For many years, airlines left the quirkier retail offering to SkyMall, the quarterly in-flight catalog available on almost all domestic flights in the United States. An old business model (the company is nearing its 25th anniversary), SkyMall has recently had to contend with the more aggressive retail strategies employed by many airlines, as well as distracting new technology; iPhones in the air mean travelers are less dependent on the catalog for entertainment.

Pet items, like this doggie coat, do well for SkyMall
Courtesy SkyMall

The company, which has made a name for itself by proffering off-kilter items (the garden yeti and remote-control R2D2 robot are long-standing best-sellers), has recently started to adapt its business model, putting even more focus on quirky products. SkyMall is also in the process of launching a mobile app.

"One of the larger shifts in the last several years is we've become extremely product-centric," says Darin Geiger, SkyMall's director of merchandizing.

"We want to be proactive in finding what's new and unique. To that end, we've been going to a lot more trade shows, searching the globe for those new products."

Some of its biggest sellers, notes Geiger, are sports paraphernalia and pet products. Though he says SkyMall's customer base appreciates functionality, it's some of the stranger and more original products that capture the imagination.

"First, we look at products that are new to market, or solve problems. Then, we look for those social-media type products that our marketing team can have a lot of fun with," he adds.

Read: The future of airline seats: Lighter, thinner, weirder?

Read: What airline fees would you pay for?

Read: The supersonic plane without windows

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Eurostar, the high-speed train company connecting London with Brussels and Paris, has just upped its game.
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Japan is set to make its mark in the skies with its first new commercial jet for over 50 years, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, aka the MRJ.
updated 1:16 AM EDT, Sat October 4, 2014
Think hotels are deliberately blocking your personal Wi-Fi networks so you'll buy theirs?
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
How would you like to trim three hours off the current commercial jet flight time between Paris and Washington, D.C.?
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
It's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Aviation isn't known as the most eco-friendly industry; running an airline produces an incredible amount of waste. But some are doing something about it.
updated 11:14 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Airports aren't exactly stress-free zones, but drones, tracking and virtual reality could help make them better places.
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
In many ways, airplanes are a retailer's dream come true. They serve a captive -- often bored -- audience with a disposable income.
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Takeoff on one of Airbus' new A350WXB test planes is a strangely quiet experience.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
What do you pack when you travel? Take a look inside other people's luggage.
updated 11:39 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one between London and New York.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the old adage goes; Airbus unveils revamped A330 airliner.
updated 10:48 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Show us how you travel with twitpics and instagram via #howipack
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT