Travel Retail Has An Achilles Heel

Over the last 12 months I have had the very good fortune to travel the world and visit many airport stores. I often make notes about my experiences on the plane for future reference. Flicking through my notes, it would seem that I have found an Achilles heel in our channel.

​“An Achilles’ heel is  weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall.” Wikipedia

​​Why is it an Achilles heel? Because my findings affected 48 out of 52 stores visited. This sounds like an opportunity. So what is the biggest weakness within our channel?

​Well, most of us in our industry have seen it right? Staff are often:

  • Talking to each other
  • Avoiding customers
  • Huddled in groups
  • Engaged in awkward conversations with shoppers

On one trip, I actually stood directly in front of a sales assistant, about 4 feet (1.2m) away for about 10 seconds before I eventually was greeted with mock surprise. Having managed sales floors varying from 10,000 sq. ft. to 60,000 sq ft, I can assure you, he and I would have had a serious conversation had I been running that floor…. But that is for another time.

I reflected on what is the root cause of all this. Effective sales floor management? Partly, lack of incentives? Maybe. I believe it is down to something more basic than that. I believe it is the capability of the individual. In a nutshell, I believe the root cause is….

….Retail Selling Skills.

I started my career retail career working on the shop floor of an electrical retailer. I applied for a job in a high street store. I could not sell for toffee. I was AWFUL. The good thing was, the company sent you on a 1 week in-house residential course. Some might think that it is a complete waste of money. People will learn on the job right?

Well…. Let’s take a look at the results.


​During week 1, I had someone on hand to help me (although, they would usually take the sale and earn the commission). Week 2, it was a little bit of shadowing and a bit of help. Week 3, I went to my residential course. On the Friday, I had a call from the duty manager asking if I would come into store and work on the Saturday. I did.

In one day I sold over £5,000. There was nothing different about that day. It had the same staffing levels. It wasn’t a bank holiday, there was no special sale, just a typical Saturday. I have put the uplift at  >325% because I am not comparing apples with apples. I am comparing one day with the average of 2 weeks. The store did smash its target that week too.

What was interesting is that over time, you develop shortcuts and bad habits when selling on the shop floor. Sales are often impacted. When this happened, I would go back to the basics and I would do what I was taught. My sales went up every single time.

Having shopped in my old stores many times since leaving, it is clear that they no longer teach the same approach that I was taught. I think that is to their detriment. I have actually stopped shopping in their stores because the experience is so bad.

So what did they teach me?

​Well, they gave me a set of skills that would allow me to sell anything in the store – whatever the product. My ability to convert a shopper to buyer went up dramatically. I also had the ability to upsell. I also had the ability to link products and cross sell to drive the transaction size up.

What we didn’t cover (interestingly) was in-depth product knowledge. We were taught how to overcome that lack of product knowledge in the first instance but also to derive a passion for learning about the products.

In short, my time on the sales floor was more effective.

When I look back, the process was split into 2 parts. To explain the first part, I want to draw on an analogy: a train [the sale], train tracks [the process / set formula] and stations [steps in the process].

The training involved using a set formula. The track takes you through a variety of stations until you get to your final destination. The train must stop at the key stations but can then pass through others if unnecessary.

For the 2nd part, the focus is on product knowledge. What is interesting is that even though the assortment in travel retail is diverse (multiple categories and sub categories), there are steps that can be taken to improve the product knowledge for front line sales teams. There are some simple steps that Travel Retail have yet to take advantage of.

Almost 20 years on… I still remember the original formula.

Can this approach work in Travel Retail?

​In short, yes. I have taken time to adapt the model I was taught to be applicable to travel retail and the categories that we have. My approach has been designed to:

  • Be universal (irrespective of language or category)
  • Be fast (our shoppers have limited time)
  • Improve conversion
  • Increase transaction values
  • Encourage cross selling
  • Motivate the team
  • Drive up service standards
  • Create a better experience for the shopper
  • Overcome show rooming (shoppers using the store as a show room and then buying on Amazon).

When you consider the problem in store, my experiences can be broken down into 3 parts:

  • Shopper avoidance
  • Ineffective conversations
  • Inability to close the sale

The approach I recommend deals with all 3 elements.

What is the impact of this approach?

​Well, in every airport shop I went into, I went in with the thought that I would be open to spending the equivalent of £100. On some occasions, I was genuinely there to buy. So, with 52 shops, that is £5,200 of potential sales….. £4,800 was missed out on.

That is one shopper.

Imagine that for one moment. Imagine only 1 shopper per hour having the same experience I was having. That is reasonable right?

1 shopper per hour X 12 hours per day (the average length of time stores are open) X 365 days a year X £100…… That is £438,000 per store per year.

What if you could use this technique to get an extra £5 or £10 into the cash till? It is entirely possible.

So how does it work?

​Well. We are just finalising the training programme right now. It is a well trodden formula that we have that has worked for myself and others time and time again. To find out how your frontline teams can receive this sales training for free, please get in touch at

A final thought….

If you have a programme that assesses service levels in store and you are scoring high scores…. you might want to re-consider the approach. Over 90% of stores we shopped were ineffective. If you would like your team evaluated, we can help with that too. Our assessment has been designed by ex-travel retail floor managers.

As ever, thank you for taking time to read and share.


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