Small businesses take wing at BWI Airport
Pilot program gives retailers lots of potential customers
When Newnew Norton decided to set up a shop in an airport terminal, she knew to expect long hours, tight security and unpredictable shopping patterns.
Still, she jumped at a chance to join an entrepreneurial program at BaltimoreWashington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. From a kiosk in the Southwest Airlines terminal, Norton sells loose and bagged teas infused with lavender, mint, jasmine, cardamom and other herbs she and her fiance grow on a Marriottsville farm. She’s promoting her teas as a healthy alternative with medicinal benefits.
“There’s no other place I would be able to attract this many people at one time,” said Norton, a 27-year-old Gwynn Oak resident who owns New Secrets Tea. “It’s a lot of visibility.”
Norton’s shop is one of four microbusinesses in a pilot program that the airport and Fraport USA, the manager of the facility’s retail concessions, launched this year to help local entrepreneurs jump-start businesses and grow into permanent retailers at the airport.
“What we hope to do is take these smallest of the small businesses in the area, grow their presence here so they graduate from cart to kiosk to larger store, and then on to other properties in other airports,” said Brett Kelly, vice president of Airmall Maryland, a subsidiary of Fraport that operates BWI retail.
By removing barriers that come with airport retail, the program offers microbusinesses a greater chance of survival, said Ricky Smith, the airport’s executive director.
“These are very small businesses that otherwise would not have the capacity or experience or financial wherewithal to compete in an environment as complex as an airport,” Smith said. “We see this as a good economic development opportunity.”
Fraport purchased and designed the retail kiosks for the businesses, which also receive advice on pricing, inventory management and staffing from experts at Morgan State University’s Economic Development Center. That kind of help is designed to substantially reduce startup costs, which can be more than $1 million to open and equip a traditional store at the airport, Smith said.
In addition to New Secrets Tea, LaunchPad retailers include Flawless Damsels Boutique, which sells apparel and accessories; Roshe Cosmetica & B.E.A.T. School of Makeup Artistry, which offers professional makeup and lash applications; and Fashion Spa House, which offers lash and brow services and sells clothing, accessories and vegan skincare products.
Dozens of business owners competed to join the inaugural group of LaunchPad retailers. Fraport, which leases space from the airport and then leases that space to vendors, began recruiting businesses at the end of last year and had to whittle a field of 75 businesses down to just four. The vendors signed one-year leases that Airmall will renew as long as the retailers meet certain operating requirements, such as maintaining airport retail hours of 4 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Cynthia Rumph sees the airport as an ideal place to get feedback from a diverse audience and iron out the wrinkles in Fashion Spa House, which she owns with her husband, Ketorus Gooding.
Now at nine employees, the business sells online, at farmers markets and from a Harford Road shop. Rumph hopes to go into franchising to expand Fashion Spa House to airports around the country.
The airport operation is providing valuable lessons, she said.
“It’s a good way to see what’s working or not, “said Rumph, a 43-year-old Parkville resident and former nurse. “It’s taught us to manage inventory way better and to close the sale fast. This is a time-sensitive environment, and they’re in a hurry. The inventory has to stay extremely organized, and the checkout time has to be in under a minute.”
She has learned to allow for extra time to have inventory delivered, because all merchandise has to be scanned through security. And she depends more than ever on her staff.
“As a retailer, I am used to setting my own hours and having holidays off or closing early,” she said. “That’s not an option here. You have to be open when the airport is open.”
In an airport setting, where travelers often are rushed and under stress, businesses that “make people feel better,” may have a better chance at success, said Hung-bin Ding, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Loyola University Maryland.
Norton said she believes her herbal tea business will appeal to travelers. She began experimenting with drying and mixing herbs for tea while being treated for cervical cancer in 2008. She is now cancer-free.
“I want to help women become healthier, because that’s what I went though,” said Norton, who studied to become an herbalist.
Exposure at the airport, she hopes, will help boost her brand. Though she hasn’t turned a profit, she feels a sense of accomplishment in learning how to keep track of inventory, retain employees and manage staffing for the extended hours. She believes she is on track to move to a more permanent space.
“It has taught me a lot,” she said. “If I can conquer and last this entire year, I can do anything.”