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Fly me to the mall and let me play among the shops


Pittsburgh -- The traveler arrived at the airport wearing two different shoes.

Clark Kemp understood the harried customer's plight and promptly sold him a pair of black-tasseled loafers. Customer service takes on a whole new meaning at an "airmall."

At Pittsburgh International Airport, travelers with time on their hands can shop for everything from running shoes to massage cream and pay the same for them as they would at the local mall. The airmall is the first of its kind in the country, boasting 60 stores that provide travelers with more than paperback novels, the morning newspaper and a toothbrush.

It offers retailers a steady stream of customers, a captive audience with cash -- or traveler's checks -- in their pockets.

"We have about 20 million passengers coming through the airport," says Sandy Lightfoot, a spokesman for BAA, the mall's British developer and manager. "A regional mall typically has 5 to 6 million. A lot of those people have time on their hands. We offer them an opportunity of spending in an interesting and profitable way."

Profitable indeed. Before the airmall opened in the fall of 1992, passengers spent about $2.40 at the airport store, says Mr. Lightfoot. That figure has nearly tripled, to $6.70 a passenger, he says. The airports in Orlando, New York City and Denver are considering similar malls, Mr. Lightfoot says.

And while the shops at the Pittsburgh airport sell expensive baubles, Pennsylvania memorabilia, Southwestern garb, athletic gear, chocolates, computer games and software, the retailers do cater to the business traveler.

They open as early as 6 a.m. and close as late as 11 p.m.

At Bon Voyage Travel Shop, customers can buy a new suitcase, repack their clothes at a table provided in the store and leave their old bag behind.

"We throw away a lot of old bags," explains manager Mary Ann Plump. "They pack everything in the new bag and they're off. That happens three or four times a day."

Craig Johnston, a salesman at the Tie Rack, says his first sale of the day "more often than not is a tie for someone who either has forgotten one or they got up too early to make a good match." Then, there are the gentlemen who wind up with breakfast on their tie. A stained cravat just won't do at that important business meeting in Dallas.

Linda Smith, manager of the Nature Company at the airmall, says children's toys are the store's big sellers. Finger puppets, squirt frogs, stamps, animal masks, items that can be easily packed in a carry-on bag.

"You get this guilt complex of parents traveling," says Ms. Smith, referring to her customers' decision to buy a toy for their child. "And I think that works for us. I say to my staff, 'Use this to your advantage.' "

At Bally of Switzerland, Mr. Kemp sold 3,500 pairs of women's and men's shoes last year. At least four customers walked into the store with mismatched shoes, he says.

They "didn't want to turn on the lights and wake up their spouse," Mr. Kemp says, explaining how the customers fumbled in their closets in a pre-dawn darkness and pulled out two different shoes.

In the winter, he says, shirts are a big commodity.

"We sell them like hot cakes. Flights are canceled, they have a meeting to go to, they need a clean shirt," Mr. Kemp says of his customers.

Not only does the airport provide a captive audience but at times a star-studded one.

Diet-exercise guru Richard Simmons, the Pittsburgh Steelers, "L.A. Law's" Corbin Bernsen, Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange, actor Martin Sheen, country-western singer Tanya Tucker.

"Everybody and anybody," says Scott Elias, the manager of the Sunglass Hut.

Despite the revolving door nature of an airport, some stores do have a regular clientele.

"People don't realize the business traveler comes through here two or three times a week. I have four or five I service on a regular basis," says Mr. Johnston, the 25-year-old salesman at the tie store.

Flight attendants frequently return to the Body Shop. For what?

"Our happy massagers," says sales clerk Annette Speerhas, holding up a wooden knob-like item with four legs.

The tag on the massager reads: "Feels so good. Try me."

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