You may be forgiven for thinking that high street travel agencies are a bit of an anachronism in today’s world. After all, who would go to a retail outlet filled with paper brochures while a uniformed member of staff tapped your details into their computer, when it’s possible to book a package or even tailor-make your own bespoke itinerary without leaving your home? Well, research from GfK suggests that the answer to this question may surprise you, with younger travelers and Leading Edge Consumers actually more likely to visit stores as part of their vacation purchase journey.
Of course, online retailing has been accounting for an ever-larger chunk of consumer spending for many years, but despite this many analysts feel there is still a place for physical stores, as a place you can actually look at and touch products before buying, as well as get advice from experts. While the former aspect is not one that is so relevant for travel, the latter certainly is, and could help explain why there is a continued consumer need for physical travel stores on our high streets.
This phenomenon first came to our attention when looking at some research on the travel sector we’d done here in the UK. We asked consumers which sources they’d used when deciding what kind of holiday to go on, with 20% mentioning high street travel agents as part of this process. Interestingly, however, this figure was higher (23%) among Travel Leading Edge Consumers, who are market mavens with a particular category passion according to GfK’s proprietary definition. What’s more, the figure was even higher among those aged 25-34, at 29%, as opposed to lower among 45-59 year olds, at 11%.
These figures suggest that users of high street travel agencies may not be who you’d initially suspect, but in fact there are compelling reasons in both cases. Category passionates are always on the lookout for new places to go, and want to maximize the enjoyment of their holiday, while younger consumers may also be less set on going to a particular destination and would value some help and advice. In both cases, the presence of in-store travel experts is likely to be a boon. After all, buying an overseas holiday could count as one of the biggest purchases in a shopper’s year, and the level of expectation placed on a big vacation could be considerable. We know from our GfK Consumer Life data that 44% of global consumers spend quite a lot of time researching brands before making a major purchase.
Another consideration, raised in a recent article extolling the virtues of the high street travel agent, is the simplicity and luxury of getting someone else to do the hard work and put together a great holiday. While consumers do now have the online tools available to them to book all the various aspects of a holiday and in some cases save money, there can still be a lot of virtual legwork required to find the cheapest flights, most convenient transfers and nicest accommodation. The increasing realization may be that lowest price doesn’t always equate to best value. Indeed, four in ten global consumers are prepared to pay a premium for products that make their life easier.
It also seems that travel agents themselves see the benefits of a long term commitment to retail stores. One prominent example is Kuoni, the luxury tour operator, who say that “it all starts with a conversation,” and highlight the fact that their holidays are tailor made by experts who will use their detailed knowledge of a destination and take into account the individual customer’s needs to curate the best break for them.
The in-store experience can also be augmented by interactive touchscreens, virtual reality headsets and more to immerse the customer in the process and bring destinations to life. According to GfK Consumer Life, the percentage of global consumers who say that virtual interactions with people or places can be as good as being there in person is steadily increasing, from 21% in 2011 to 30% now. This development highlights an opportunity for innovators in the technology sector to partner with retailers in travel and other categories to develop in-store experiences that will wow jaded customers.
There are surely valuable learnings here for retailers in all categories. If even a category like travel, with no tangible product to display, finds brick and mortar stores to be an important part of the retail mix now and into the future, there’s bound to be a place for them elsewhere. Considering the role that only physical stores can play and the consumer needs that they address in your category could help you stay ahead in a highly competitive omnichannel environment.
David Crosbie is a Director on the Consumer Life team at GfK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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