BrainTrust Query: American Airlines – Buying the Friendly Skies?

Discussion
Nov 24, 2009
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Commentary
by Doug
Stephens
,
President, Retail Prophet

American
Airlines recently announced that it will be testing a retail sales
program aboard selected flights. With the help of on-board internet
connectivity, passengers will be able to shop from their seats for
many items. In other cases, the airline will be looking to its flight
attendants to take an active role in selling products and services.

Much
of the merchandise is said to be similar to what’s currently found in
the infamous SkyMall catalog, known for its off-the-wall items such
as video-recording sunglasses and spy-camera watches. Other proposed
product offerings under the new program include things such as live
performance tickets and limousine rides. Even Disney is considering
selling park passes on select flights.

When it
comes to new retail concepts I firmly believe in pushing the boundaries
of convention. That said, I think this program will fail. Not because
I disagree with the idea of being able to buy what we want, whenever
and wherever we want. It’s because the realities of air travel
are virtually incompatible with successful retail.

Planes Make Lousy
Stores:
The conditions in a plane don’t lend themselves to making a purchase
that’s anything more than a necessity. It’s noisy, you have very
little room to move and you’re often dead tired from work or play
– not to mention running the security gauntlet. Agonizing over what
size of heated dog bed to buy is probably the last thing you want
to do on the red-eye between Portland and Chicago.

We’re Conditioned
to Being Ripped Off:
When was the last time you bought anything on
board a plane that you thought was of surprising value or quality? The
truth is, we’re conditioned to being ruthlessly gouged by air carriers
and we resent it. I’ll typically only buy food on an aircraft if I’m
desperately hungry because I resent overpaying for a horrible meal. I
can’t imagine experiencing the same irrational urgency to buy tickets
to Wicked or a pair of lawn
aerator sandals…
but that’s just me.

Flight Attendants Are Not Salespeople: The
airline industry has sunken so low in terms of service standards
that the role of a flight attendant is now almost purely getting
you from A to B safely. Safety is of course of utmost importance
but sadly they seem to do so with very little interest in brightening
your day or enriching the flying experience. To suddenly expect these
same people to morph into cheerful, knowledgeable salespeople between
cabin prep and cross-check simply defies logic.

Above all, there’s one
thing working against this concept. It’s the nagging question that
will play on the minds of passengers like me. Instead of resorting
to peddling stuff to make a few extra bucks, why couldn’t American
(and most other airlines) just put more effort into making their
customers feel happy comfortable and valued? That’s
something I’d gladly pay $15.00 dollars to experience.

Discussion Question:
Is airline travel incompatible with retailing? Is there a better
opportunity to reach captive airline travelers beyond the SkyMall
catalog? How might adding online capabilities expand the shopping
potential on airlines?

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28 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: American Airlines – Buying the Friendly Skies?"


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Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 5 months ago
So let me get this straight. I can’t get a meal on AA. I have to pay extra for bags. I probably got awful service at the ticket counter and gate. Now I have to buy stuff while in a cramped airplane seat? Hey, I like browsing through the Skymall catalog as much as the next passenger. Do I buy anything? Of course not. It’s all overpriced and can be found elsewhere for cheaper (yes, you can find Skymall stuff elsewhere for cheaper). Sounds like AA should refocus their attention at building a better customer experience instead of trying to sell people that are already sold (they have already purchased a plane ticket so technically to AA, they are already sold customers). And the only thing I want the cabin crew focusing on is my well being and comfort. Cabin crews are already stretched to the max with increased duties and reduced personnel and now they have to sell stuff? Can you imagine the training involved? Right after inflatable slide training they have learn up… Read more »
Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
11 years 5 months ago

I have to disagree. Now while I may not be the target for selling x-ray vision sunglasses with a built in iPod, there are plenty of travelers that as soon as the plane hits 10,000 feet, open up their laptops to do work, watch movies and now, will have the ability to surf the net or some web area for purchasing items that they had not considered. I think the concept of “impulse” sales has just taken on a new venue.

Phil Rubin
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
In terms of the compatibility of retail and air travel, there are a number of harsh realities:1. Air travel is not great and is not going to get significantly better. WiFi helps but domestically, there is minimal upside in terms of what the airlines (sans Virgin America and Southwest) can deliver in terms of a consistently great experience.2. WiFi is a game changer when it comes to the ability to better monetize the value of affluent passengers. Look at the eBay deal with GoGo inflight as an example.3. SkyMall is indeed tired and its continued existence is testament that there is money to be made via inflight retail.4. The airlines, publishers and merchants are aggressively refocused on and redefining how to generate incremental revenues leveraging the value of the people strapped into airplanes. Look at the new seatback advertising initiative at AirTran and the sad reality that as an industry, air travel in the US has a cumulative loss since its inception. 5. Frequent flyer miles are still a valuable currency, even if they are… Read more »
Zel Bianco
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
I have mixed feelings on this one, although I am leaning towards agreeing with Doug. On the one hand, some people have been buying from the inflights or Skymall for years, and on the other hand, air travel has become such a chore, that the last thing I want is to have the flight attendants pitching products up and down the aisle. How about helping to get the kid sitting behind me to stop screaming and kicking the back of my seat instead? Speaking of sales, what are flight attendants prepared to sell effectively? Perhaps, in the area of restaurant suggestions, especially if you are traveling to a city that is unfamiliar to you–that may work. Maybe there could be an American Airlines promotion where you get 15 – 20% off your dinner, or a free glass of wine might work out OK. Another area that AA will need to think through is internet access on the flight. Flights that have them can do all the searching, ordering and buying they want, and the passenger… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
Certainly having a wi-fi version of SkyMall isn’t a terrible idea…and as long as the passengers can also surf to comparison-shop, what’s the harm? I assume the SkyMall program is reasonably successful, or no one could afford to print those big books every month. AA gets affiliate dollars, I assume, and passengers can make quasi-productive use of their time on the plane (not everyone can or will focus well enough to work in those tiny little seats). Can’t say the same about having Flight Attendants act as retail sales people. That is such a bad idea across so many dimensions I can hardly count them. The FAs will hate it (they already have to clean out large debris between segments–rage is building I think). It will probably feel intrusive to passengers. It’s a distraction for the FAs, even if they enjoy it. The way to really make it work is to give a promotion code to passengers that they can use at SkyMall’s site that’s only good for the duration of the flight. The discount… Read more »
David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

I’m totally in support of anything the airlines can do to help achieve profitability. I’m especially supportive when the approach helps to make life for the air traveler more useful or convenient, and I think that airborne shopping falls into that category.

However, I do not predict much success for airborne shopping via the laptop because most of the coach class passengers do not have a lot of room for easy maneuvering, for example, the tiny trays have no room for using a separate mouse, which research shows most people still use for shopping online, as opposed to the built in mouse on the computer.

Additionally, for domestic flights the time allowed for using your computer is more likely to be used for business and personal needs more so than for browsing a “SkyMall” type of shopping guide.

For domestic flights, the attendants are usually busy with demanding passengers needing other things such as more cream for their coffee or a Coke with no ice.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
There are many things I would like on my flights, but the opportunity to buy merchandise on board isn’t one of them. Actually I am not sure that I even want the internet connectivity that would allow me to do so. Being on a plane means that no one can instant message you and expect an immediate response or call you on a cell phone to tell you something that could have waited till you landed. I digress. At the beginning of every flight we are told by the captain that the flight attendants’ primary role is to ensure our safety, but the airlines have already degraded their position and have them hawking better seats, snacks and sometimes a meal. Now you want to further “enhance” their position to have them selling merchandise? One last thought. In the days where we are told over and over again about the dangers of identity theft, credit card fraud, etc, you want me to enter my credit card number while sitting next to a person I never met… Read more »
Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

To make this a success, airlines like American will have to rethink their model for online web usage. Right now, airlines equipped with onboard WiFi use it as a revenue producer, usually at a high price tag. Expecting passengers to pay $9.99 or higher for the privilege of online shopping simply isn’t going to work.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with selling merchandise onboard, whether by placing catalog or online orders for future delivery or by actually distributing goods on the plane (any international traveler is used to the duty-free pitch). But my fellow panelists make a valid point: The rest of the airline experience is far from customer-friendly today and is not exactly geared to put passengers in a shopping mood.

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
I dunno, it would work for me. I fly a lot, and I’m colossally forgetful. If some of my basic travel/business/personal needs could be met, I’d be pleased by the opportunity to get them on the plane. When someone in the seat in front of me reclines and I can no longer use my laptop, I have actually taken out the inflight catalog and have actually bought stuff, and been happy with the results. I’m assuming the bulky exotic thingies won’t be available on the plane, and that flight attendants won’t be hawking stuff going up and down the aisle like popcorn vendors, but rather just delivering stuff you order to your seat. My biggest wish is that you could rent pillows. I wouldn’t mind. I accept that now you can no longer find a pillow for your arthritic lower back, and that if you forget (there we go again!) to bring your own pillow, you’re stuck with an agonizing flight and perhaps the inability to stand up on arrival! No, I don’t like what… Read more »
Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
11 years 5 months ago

As someone who has flown weekly for over 20 years, I say to AA and all the rest of them–PLEASE DO NOT have the flight attendant try to sell me stuff. You will be making what is a largely uncomfortable experience significantly worse. In order of priority you can make me happiest by doing the following…

– keeping us safe
– providing free internet access
– providing a soda
…and maybe someday…allowing me to take off/land with my Kindle still on.

Ron Margulis
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

I can see it now–Walmart teams up with Sky Team, Tesco joins One World and Amazon partners with Star Alliance. All bases covered.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
11 years 5 months ago

It is the next step for the airlines in the US. Ryan Air in Europe has been using their planes as a flying retail store for years, and have been highly successful in this execution. And Duty Free sales on International flights have been a mainstay for the last 50 years. How is this any different?

Times have changed. Flyers still want to only pay $300 for a RT ticket, even though fuel costs are up, labor costs are up, and landing fees continue to increase. Having the ability to sell product to consumers is simply another way for the airlines to remain competitive in a challenging economy.

Who knows, I might purchase something on the plane myself. But I hope I’m not asked to drive up to the pick-up window on the left side of the plane while at 33,000 feet.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
11 years 5 months ago

Clever. Why not? I’ve got 4 hours of idle time from the East to the West Coast, why not do my Christmas shopping instead of watching a movie for the third time? It’s convenience! I think it will work…execution is the key!

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 5 months ago

I’m fine with buying via the Internet while flying. But I draw the line at making flight attendants into sales associates. Flight attendants are already overloaded with responsibilities and unfortunately, many don’t present themselves as being very customer-service friendly. I agree with Doug in that I’d rather see the airlines put more time and effort into making the plane trip more relaxing and convenient. Enlisting flight attendants to sell goods just doesn’t do that.

That said, if brands want to reach airline travelers, the best venue remains the terminal–especially given the hours-long delays. Aside from the traditional stores found there, entertainment ticket kiosks could be added, as well as some “showroom retail” concepts wherein travelers can touch and feel product, then order it and have it shipped to home for free.

Roger Saunders
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

Having flown a couple of weeks out of the month for years, I appreciate a warm smile, and a smooth flight. That cylindrical tube is my quiet time to think, reflect, and anticipate.

Let me get to the reading that there is never enough time for today. This is not the venue for the shopping of a 55+ Male business traveler.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
11 years 5 months ago

Perhaps this is more a publicity PR release by the airline to get some free advertising and their name in the news, rather than a full-fledged, legit retail venture. It’s working. We’re talking about them.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 5 months ago
WOW! This one has generated a lot of comments. I guess we all have opinions about flying. Here is my take: 1. SkyMall must be successful, because it is always there. However, in my over 2 million miles of flying, I have never purchased anything from it. 2. I resent the idea of flight attendants being sales people. But, one time on the way back from a business trip to Europe, I did make an on plane duty free purchase for my wife that made me a hero when I got home. 3. WiFi access changes everything. The offering moves from those silly catalog offerings to something helpful. On my flight to Disney World with the family, I can buy my passes and have them waiting for me. On my flight to Europe, I can find special deal rail passes that I may not have considered. On my flight to Chicago that is 2 hours late, I can order a limo to pick me up at the airport and take me directly to my meeting.… Read more »
Edward Weisberg
Guest
Edward Weisberg
11 years 5 months ago
I think that selling online on airplanes is a wonderful opportunity for web-based retailers. Like it or not, SkyMall is a very successful channel. I have used this magazine to promote and sell products, with great ROI results. Being on a plane is great downtime and leisure time, and I think that techie executives love looking through the catalog to buy all kinds of innovative products. Moving this process online for immediate ordering is a logical move to get the order, rather than depending on someone to remember to order what they liked after they land. I see the challenge being how to motivate people to shop at the SkyMall or Airline site, rather than other sites, as the real opportunity. I’m not convinced that engaging flight attendants is part of this formula. But there are lots of ways to add value. Special deals could be offered in exchange for the immediate use of air miles. Being able to pick up your purchase when you land would definitely be of value. Now, instead of shopping… Read more »
Aakash Pahwa
Guest
Aakash Pahwa
11 years 5 months ago
Can’t blame AA. Any business today is forced to innovate and try to generate cash whichever way possible. There needs to be a middle ground between AA’s need for cash vs. its customers’ need for ‘let me fly peacefully’. In that light, let us examine how AA possibly will sell. 1. An announcement sometime past when the tube hits 10,000 feet – we have x, y, and z available – please ask the flight attendant. Annoying, yet passive. Eventually travelers will end up digesting this. However, the returns might not be what AA expects. 2. Flight attendants walking down the aisle – just like they sell food. This is much more active in terms of selling. Much more annoying. As it is, we are oversold in today’s world. You at least expect some peace while away in the air. 3. Fire up your computer – get on the AA-SykMall website and there you are. Personally, I prefer this option the most. This is more voluntary and one is not pushed into buying. You have let… Read more »
Dale Collie
Guest
Dale Collie
11 years 5 months ago
Airlines are no longer known for their innovative thinking. They’re going backwards. We’ve all heard the remark that we’d rather pay $25 more per ticket and go back to decent meals, no luggage charge, and a tad more knee room. Is there a marketing cave man somewhere convincing airlines to charge, charge, charge? American culture does not permit nickle and diming customers. As we’ve seen in these pages, our entire marketing system is moving to a give “stuff” of value and build the selling-buying relationship to make a profit. Do we think Americans or others can embrace this concept? Will they be able to restructure the negative relationship they now have with customers so they can sell retail? The industry hasn’t proven it so far with SkyMall catalogs and DutyFree shops. But…if someone with the right ideas gets their hands around this concept, it could prove to be very popular. A vendor could start by offering to have our “flight meals” ready for pick up as we deplane and rush to catch the connecting flight.… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

I’m with Richard…the $9.95 fee for Internet access isn’t appealing, particularly for fliers who aren’t going cross-country. From the comments here, it’s obvious that customers are keenly aware of the fees they’ll be asked to pay in the air. Smarties will bring along a movie in DVD to watch on the laptop, and will bring the SkyMall catalog home.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 5 months ago

Wow. Great debate!

Just a couple of clarifying points….

There was a mention of Ryanair’s retail success in Europe. It’s important to note that Ryanair’s profit model is based on charging for everything over and above the basic seat. Everything from the first piece of luggage to the bag of peanuts is extra and included in what they call “ancillary sales.” How much of what they call ancillary is comprised of in-flight retail is not clear.

Also with respect to SkyMall’s success: In 2007 the company reported sales of 100 million but that included their entire corporate rewards program and revenue from building online shopping sites for other companies. One can only speculate as to what portion of that comes from in-flight sales and therefore the real success of the program is difficult to determine. Online would clearly reduce the cost the program, however, by alleviating the need for a catalog.

Mike Romano
Guest
Mike Romano
11 years 5 months ago

American Airlines has already done a great job of digressing into becoming the Greyhound Bus Lines of the skies the past 5 years. Yes–now offering passengers less leg room, increased baggage charges and ever deteriorating planes.

One of the worst jobs in that industry has to be that of a flight attendant. What used to be perceived as a “glamour” job is now an exercise in surviving a 3-6 hour flight with agitated passengers. Free internet service would be a great service to passengers, but I’m not sure adding “sales clerk” to a flight attendant’s job description would help with airline employee retention.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

“…this plane is equipped with 2 self-service Apple vending machines (gestures with fingers fore and aft); after the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ signs, an illuminated green track light on the floor will direct you to them…”

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 5 months ago

Along with my day job as K.C. Fleming Foods Ad Mgr. in the 70s, I was head bartender at Georgie Porgie’s in North Kansas City. It was a blast, and one of the attractions was its proximity to the TWA Stewardess Training Facility. Smart, attractive, career-driven women flocked to our dance club on weekends (here’s a TWA stewardess link). Besides their gregariousness and physical beauty, these women had poise, were intelligent, and were driven to succeed. They often spoke of safety training and customer relations, and clearly took pride in those responsibilities. They also saw their jobs as preparation and launchpads for corporate positions around the world. They were not saleswomen, although they had the skills. Instead, their inflight duties kept them busy with safety and hospitality. As Joel Warady noted, things have certainly changed.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 5 months ago

My flights to the US this trip were on American, the first time I’ve flown their so-called friendly skies. The most notable thing about the trip was the almost complete lack of in-flight entertainment, compared with other international airlines I’ve flown in the past few years. Mere economy passengers got a very few ceiling-mounted screens and no control over what was on when. Extremely poor choice of films also. NOW I understand, though. They are saving the entertainment for the sales pitch. As if there was even the slightest chance I would fly them again, that has now decreased to nil.

d v
Guest
d v
11 years 5 months ago

Today we are hard pressed for time; if there is a ready audience in every flight, there is no harm in trying to sell them things. In India, airlines sell actual products, not on the net, and I have seen good sales taking place. The conversion of an audience into sales in a flight is good enough to keep trying such things but why not sell few things off the shelf? Definitely, through the internet is not a good idea.