Life in airports is changing. As time-strapped travelers seek to use every minute, retail stores are providing welcome relief from what, in the past, was generally drab space. Products are being showcased as never before and are dramatically influencing airport design. This has been especially evident in the past five years, as airport authorities have realized the revenue potential of retail in airports.

Traditionally, the airport has served as a transition space between ground and air transportation, with the stereotypical objective being to make the transition as expedient as possible. Travelers were encouraged to move to the departure areas as quickly as possible via routes that offered predictable signage and linear corridors. Moreover, functional materials were used so passengers would not be distracted from their mission: boarding the plane as quickly as possible. Acoustic tile ceilings, fluorescent lighting and gray-on-gray finishes all served to make the airport environment efficient, cold and characterless.

Today, airports all over the world are turning those drab spaces into revenue-generating, exciting environments that reduce stress instead of inducing it. The aim is to provide a feeling of delight to be in the airport - ensuring that the "travel experience" begins when the customer enters the airport, long before setting foot on the plane. Along with encouraging social interaction, relaxation and, yes, shopping, airport store design seeks to entertain travelers and contribute to the personality and culture of the region.

In response, designers are incorporating character into airport retail stores, capturing the city's charm with local tenants, complemented by the increasing presence of brand leaders. Airport design today challenges the design of even the best shopping centers.

Greater efforts are being made to feature retail as new airports are developed and older ones redeveloped. This translates into higher ceilings, larger store fronts and brighter stores - designs that capture attention and imagination, with themes shared between stores and common areas. For example, store fronts in the central terminal at Dorval International Airport in Montreal were designed to reflect the variety of the typical street in Old Montreal.

Retail design for an airport environment should recognize that there are two distinct types of airport customers: those in a hurry and those with more time.

Designs for the time-pressured customer call for easy access. This means fewer freestanding floor fixtures and wider aisles so that customers with luggage carts and carry-on baggage can easily maneuver around the store. Thus, emphasis is placed on vertical merchandising or maximizing wall space.

Product organization and display, together with strong graphic communication, are key purchase motivators to the customer with no time to spare. Many airport retailers have opted for self-service operation, which offers cost-control benefits to the operator and impulse-buy opportunities to the customer.

As retail becomes a critical revenue-generator in airports, expect to see more airports featuring streetscapes that reflect regional flavors. It may not be long before shopping at the airport becomes a viable alternative to shopping in the High Street.

* Favorite retail store REI, Seattle: "Rigorous, yet entertaining - with lots of surprises. The designers must have had a good time coming up with this one."

* Favorite restaurant design Cafe Marche, Amsterdam, Netherlands: "It exemplifies strong visual presentation, merchandising of food and interaction with the customer. It has a sensual effect on your appetite."

* Most improved retail image Swatch: "As demonstrated by the Robson Street location in Vancouver."

* Most admired industry figure Yabu/Pushelberg, Toronto: "I have always admired their creative talents and accomplishments."