SINGAPORE — If not for the constant roar of airplane engines, Singapore Changi Airport could easily pass for an enormous, carpeted, luxury shopping mall, encompassing boutiques belonging to most of the major designer brands worldwide.

Ferragamo is here, with its clutch bags going for 1,299.70 Singapore dollars, or $1,040 at current exchange, along with high-heeled shoes from Saint Laurent, selling from 1,074 Singapore dollars, or $860.

Changi may not always offer the best bargains, but this is where travelers from some of the most populous nations on Earth — China, India and Indonesia — do their shopping for clothes, bags and cosmetics. The prices, for them, are still more affordable than those in the retail stores of New Delhi or Jakarta. Chronically overpriced Indonesia, with a population of 250 million, is just a stone’s throw away — and only a one hour, 15-minute flight from Jakarta.

And it does not always have to be Hugo Boss or Bally, although the latter has three boutiques at Changi. While a luxury item like Prada’s Baroque Sunglasses goes for $693, there are some “humbler” options for determined shoppers, like Duo-Tone Lace-Up Flats, shoes by Charles & Keith, selling for only $40. And there are a variety of Chinese, Indian and local designers as well. Gucci and Shanghai Tang rub shoulders with Indian retailers selling saris, or Malay designers selling batik. Among the most popular items available here are batik dresses — almost exact replicas of the uniforms worn by Singapore Airlines’ flight attendants.

In 2014, for the second year in a row, Changi has been named by Skytrax as the “world’s best airport,” leaving behind such prestigious rivals as the Hong Kong International Airport and Seoul’s Incheon. Changi is the fifth-busiest airport for international traffic in the world, and second busiest in Asia. In 2013 it handled 53.1 million passengers, and accounted for 4.5 billion Singapore dollars in output, while employing 28,000 people.

Its floors are carpeted, there are prominent spaces reserved for an array of international artwork, and there are even jazz performances on some evenings. On the roof of Terminal 2, there is a swimming pool and spa. Travelers can rest at the free cinema, or walk through botanical gardens.

Robin Goh, assistant vice president of corporate communications at Changi Airport Group (a corporation that manages the airport), said, “Changi airport is the most awarded airport in the world.…Managers of many other world airports don’t understand how Changi became like this — why does it attract so many foreigners and locals alike? It is not just a place to see someone off or to pick him or her up. Local people come here to shop, to dine, to visit art galleries…”

Goh continued, “We are making a big effort to attract Singapore’s inhabitants.…We are constantly creating promotions that affect not only travelers but also locals. For example: Shoppers do not pay GST [Goods and Service Tax] at all outlets of Changi Airport, before and after passport and customs controls. From the business side, we understand that we have to cater to both travelers and the retailers, and we are trying to balance it well.”

Jessica Senjaya, an Indonesian and resident of Singapore, said, “I prefer to shop at Changi for my cosmetics because it is all duty-free here. I am also able to find designer bags at Changi; the models that can’t be found at other stores in downtown. I can tell you that many Singaporeans feel the same way.”
Franky Espehana, owner of information technology company New Horizons Singapore, has been coming to Changi for years.

“Many Singaporeans visit T[erminal] 3 at Changi Airport in order to shop and dine here, especially on the weekends,” he said. “T3 was designed like a mall. You don’t feel that you are at a normal airport. And when you have to fly, there is no feeling of stress when you go to the departure area. I live 10 minutes away from Changi; therefore, it is very convenient for me to come here to eat and to shop. It has become part of a lifestyle to be here, for me and for many other Singaporeans.”

Changi is not only busy but also very profitable. Goh admitted that sales at Changi airport’s outlets are always at least somewhat higher than at the brands’ flagships in downtown Singapore. Right after visitors have passed through immigration, Changi offers a large variety of duty-free shops, but there are also numerous lanes of luxury boutiques, restaurants and other services.

Tho Hong Kiat, a store manager for Michael Kors, Singapore, said, “Michael Kors has four stores in Singapore, and only one store at Changi, at Terminal 3. The difference between our outlets downtown and here is evident: at Changi we have some variety — for instance, colors that are available only in our airport store. Also, our Changi store is the only one that carries Michael Kors Men’s collection.”

CC Lee is the general manager of LS travel retail, for Singapore and Malaysia. The company is in charge of the Fashion Gallery that unites several top brands at Changi’s Terminal 2. “In total, we have 25 stores at Changi, and that includes a wide genre of brands.…” LS travel retail is part of Lagardère Services, one of the world leaders in travel retail and luxury fashion at airports.

The Fashion Gallery comprises 17 luxury fashion boutiques, all housed under one roof, with names like Hugo Boss, Longchamp, Salvatore Ferragamo, Repetto, Furla, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Tod’s, Etienne Aigner, Bally and many others. “The retail concept is unique and you don’t see it in Singapore’s downtown malls,” said Lee. “In terms of fashion, Changi Airport is extremely strong — most of the well-known and top brands are represented here. Service strategy is the key; we are catering specifically to the needs of the travelers, with shopping encounters tailored to their needs. And we are aware that our customers belong to a wide range of cultures and nationalities.”

Goh is optimistic about the future of Changi. “For us, innovation is very important,” he said. “The airport will keep evolving. Even now, we are building more terminals. By 2020, we plan to open the new Terminal 5. Now, we handle 53 million passengers per year, flying into Changi. The majority are of course transit passengers. Soon we will have many more.”

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