In June, British sandwich chain EAT announced plans to shut down 10% of its high-street stores across the UK and focus on retail opportunities in transport hubs.

Alongside the traditional airport duty-free spaces, the brand said it will aim to open more branches inside railway stations like the one recently inaugurated at London’s Liverpool Street station.

The move saw EAT join a host of retailers that have chosen to focus more on transport hubs – and particularly railway stations – in the past few years.

International brands like Mac, Rituals, The Body Shop and Hamleys, for example, have all booked a spot in Network Rail’s newly revamped London Bridge station, which has a 2,000ft2 area with over 70 units reserved for retailers.

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As the railway industry works to deal with a rise in passenger numbers – Network Rail customers are projected to grow from 850 million to one billion by 2020 – new requirements are shaping the face and role of railway stations.

“Passenger journeys have doubled in the last 20 years and as such we’ve worked to redesign and redevelop our stations to meet this capacity demand,” says Network Rail Property managing director David Biggs, adding that convenience is becoming one of the top priorities for its travellers.

Increased passenger traffic has led the infrastructure manager to implement what Biggs describes as “larger retail experiences which include shops, but also wider services such as restaurants, bars and other forms of retail”.

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Numbers suggest the move is paying off. Recent figures from Network Rail show that revenues from retail are growing substantially year-on-year, with the state-owned company witnessing five-and-a-half years of consecutive retail sales growth across its 17 managed stations. The company raked in £748.8m in 2016/17.

“Our station investments have led to a rise in customer satisfaction and increase in sales,” Biggs says. “In recent years there have also been marked improvements in satisfaction at stations where we have made retail investments, for example at King’s Cross, London Bridge and Birmingham New Street.”

Rail retail beyond UK borders

Substantial investments in railway retail have also been made outside the UK. A prime example is Germany’s Leipzig Hauptbahnhof station, which houses the Promenaden, the city’s biggest shopping centre with almost 200 shops.

According to Leipzig Promenaden Hauptbahnhof centre manager Thomas Oeheme, the mall, which was built in partnership with Deutsche Bahn over 20 years ago, is proving extremely profitable. “More than 120,000 people a day use the building – twice as much as before,” he says. “With 25 million visitors per year, it is the most frequented building in the federal state of Saxonia.”

Oeheme says retail at railway stations also represents a lucrative move for shop keepers, who “particularly profit from various aspects such as high footfall figures, common marketing and events and a professional management of the centre”.

New York Grand Central Terminal is another example. One of the busiest stations in the US, the hub this year celebrates the 20th anniversary since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) decided to integrate shops and restaurants throughout the station. According to MTA’s director of retail leasing management for Grand Central Terminal Leah Bassknight, year-on-year sales are continually rising.

A new type of transport retail

Shopping in transport hubs is something that air travellers are quite familiar with; frequent flyers typically identify airports with the duty-free stores that offer luxury products, last-minute gifts, as well as food and drinks. But the trend has a rather different profile when it comes to railway stations, which are often located within busy city centres and therefore attract a much more varied type of audience.

Network Rail footfall studies show that 25% of people coming to its stations are not travellers, but actually use them as hubs for shopping and dining, paving the way for more retail opportunities. As Biggs puts it: “The increasing popularity of our managed stations means that we are home to more brands than ever before and we are able to reach more people through our advertising partnerships, generating more money for the railway.”

In New York, Bassknight describes Grand Central as both a railway station and “a comprehensive shopping centre”. “The audience isn’t solely comprised of travellers; therefore our retail mix provides a much more diverse range of products than one would see at an airport duty-free shop,” she explains. “Like a real shopping centre, we have a wide range of customers, with different needs, interests and money to spend and we have to hit all of their interests.”

Oehme adds that retail is a crucial factor for the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof station, which, in the 1990s, “was too big for rail operation alone”.

Moreover, demand differentiates a railway station from an airport’s duty-free area or a traditional shopping centre. Oehme explains: “[A railway shopping mall] is more focused on convenience products, grocery, and travel necessities such as books, presents, drugstore products, as well as food and beverages,” meaning that “both the shopping behaviour and the customer structure is different”.

The search for large-scale demographics

Such a variety of customers suggests that station managers need access to a wide range of data and consumer analytics to better target their services. Here, digital technologies are invaluable.

Paul Hinchy, head of transport at WiFi solutions and analytics provider WiFi SPARK, believes that WiFi could be the answer to operators’ need for large-scale customer analytics, “Through WiFi, what we’ve seen is that operators have the ability to engage with passengers during dwell time and potentially make them aware of the additional facilities and things that are going on in the stations, whilst being able to promote retail opportunities,” he says.

He adds that train operating companies are investing to regenerate their stations and tailor them to meet travellers’ needs: “Retailers and food and beverage outlets coming into stations [will] get the insight to back up the right demographic of people that are actually using that facility.”

Joining forces across transport

As technological advancements continue, Hinchy believes that if operators aim to “innovate and integrate”, they have to combine their own data with the data gathered by other players in the transport industry, such as those involved in the operation of buses, metro and light rail.

“The ability for users to easily navigate between these different modes of transport is a key requirement but I think the future of WiFi in that environment is that it needs to be as integrated as the transport services themselves,” he says.

An integrated WiFi network across potentially whole cities will give train operating companies a “huge insight into how people are moving across these different modes of transport, ultimately for the benefit of the passenger to make sure that there are clear efficiencies being delivered when people are moving between one mode of transport and the next.”