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Stellar Partners' CEO drives impulse buys at TIA and other airports

Susan Stackhouse is chief executive officer of Stellar Partners, a Tampa company that owns airport shops in 12 cities across the nation, including this Ron Jon Surf Shop at Tampa International Airport, as well as Mindworks and Dog*E*Works.


Susan Stackhouse is chief executive officer of Stellar Partners, a Tampa company that owns airport shops in 12 cities across the nation, including this Ron Jon Surf Shop at Tampa International Airport, as well as Mindworks and Dog*E*Works.

Not that long ago, the stuff you could buy at airports was pretty much limited to T-shirts and key chains, chewing gum and magazines.

Today, airport retail is in full bloom. Susan Stackhouse started in a business running duty-free shops. She bought the company and expanded into newsstands and specialty retail shops.

Based in Tampa, Stellar Partners now operates in a dozen U.S. airports, including Tampa International, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and major airports in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Stackhouse developed two concepts: Mindworks, a toy and electronics store for kids, and a gift shop for dogs and owners called Dog*E*Works. Stellar also owns licensing rights to Ron Jon Surf Shop airport locations.

She recently talked to the Times about why Victoria's Secret was a bust, and about selling "Doggie Mom" T-shirts and surfboards at the airport:

How is specialty retailing different at an airport from another environment?

(It's) all impulse. Very few people plan to shop for anything in a specialty store at an airport. That's not the reason they're here.

So, how do you pull them inside the store?

We have interesting merchandise in the front, so in that 30 seconds while someone's walking past your store, you can catch their eye. It's not like they're window shopping in a mall. We do that in Mindworks usually with something that's moving … like a little battery-operated animal that makes noise, is playful and funny. Sometimes, we have airplanes flying from the ceiling.

There's some stress involved in being in an airport, and we (try to) offer a little bit of an escape. Our mantra (for employees) is "Have you had fun today?" They want to make sure people have fun, and they're in the store — and that usually translates into sales.

Where did you get the idea for Mindworks?

We did the one and only FAO Schwarz ever done at an airport, at (Chicago's) O'Hare. It was the mid '90s when they were doing some big expansion and popping up in malls. We thought it was very successful. But after a couple years, they decided they didn't want to do it anymore.

What we learned from it was … people were willing to spend money on unique, high-end merchandise for children. Up to that point, a cheap T-shirt or a cheap teddy bear was about all you could get for a child at an airport. That's the ultimate guilt gift when you've been on a business trip and you need something for a child.

Is Dog*E*Works all about guilt gifts for lonely canines?

It happened because I got a dog after going my whole adult life without one. She's a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Lily. I realized how much money I was spending on her. We started researching and (found) pet retail was the second-fastest-growing category behind electronics.

It's a combination of merchandise for the dogs and about dogs. You can find a jersey of your favorite sports team for your dog. Picture frames that are breed-specific. Matching T-shirts for the owner and the dog, such as "Doggie Mom" and "Mom's Doggie." We sell a lot of water bottle adapters, a little screw-on thing that you can put on a regular plastic bottle of water that the dog can drink out of.

What kind of stores haven't worked in airports?

Victoria's Secret didn't work very well. Women don't like to undress in an airport — it's not the way we like to shop. It's too rushed.

What new concepts do you like?

Vino Volo. It's a wine bar and they focus a lot on local wines and also sell bottles. So you can come in, have a glass and take some home. There's a brand, Express Spa, that's been doing very well. Where they have enough space, they'll do full massages, manicures and pedicures. It's great.

There's a company called Zoom that's doing vending machines that are branded. They have a Best Buy vending machine that's all electronics. It's all recognizable brands. People know exactly what they're getting. If they want an iPod, put their credit card in and here it comes.

What still surprises you about your business?

(At Ron Jon) we sell a lot of surfboards, maybe one a month. … We originally put them in as part of the decor in the first store in Orlando. We ship them for free.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

Stellar Partners' CEO drives impulse buys at TIA and other airports 10/04/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 4, 2009 4:30am]
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