Making the passenger e-commerce experience fly at Heathrow

Alex Lee Profile picture for user alex_lee June 23, 2022
Making the customer experience of the digital journey for passengers as compelling as possible was the challenge facing Heathrow Airport.


While airports are currently suffering major operational issues this summer that aren’t helping make travel fun, even in normal conditions the time spent at the airport is a significant part of the overall customer experience.

Take Heathrow Airport as a case in point. During May 2022 alone, 5.3 million passengers passed through. With so many in-person customers now returning to travel, e-commerce and digital traffic is an important aspect of their journey through the airport.

In this mix, e-commerce design is about more than retail elements, as Kylie Andrews, Head of Digital at Heathrow Airport, explained at the recent Salesforce World Tour event in London.

In the first half of the year, we've seen a 22% increase in revenue, with more people going for a digital experience, resulting in an increase in conversion by about 1.7%. That digital experience has also helped us cross-sell facilities and products such as lounges in our conversion funnel. Our research and development team report that when people use the digital assets, customer satisfaction increases phenomenally.

From searching for information, wayfinding, finding what services and facilities are available before and after security, and booking long stay parking, there’s a need for a curated marketplace of products and services to create a unified experience.

Multiple facets have been built into Heathrow’s solution, she added, using fundamental pillars to underpin the design - speed, flexibility, simplicity and content.

By enabling designers and front-end developers to work hand-in-hand, the airport management has built a usable on-brand experience without lots of configuration, which also makes it a lot more supportable.

The need for speed

As the pandemic peaked and the transition into the Vaccine Economy began, the travel sector found itself in a very fluid situation, to say the least. As a result, agility and adaptability have become ever more essential.

As priorities changed quickly, developers needed to switch between priorities, from the services website to delivering retail options, where click-and-collect offered an opportunity for cost reduction. Dominic Corrigan, Head of Immersive Experiences for Capgemini, which worked with Heathrow and Salesforce on the airport's requirements, explained:

We developed a really good one-team agile delivery model. So instead of it being all about project groups and specifications, we were looking at the product owners embedded with our teams, quarterly product roadmap reviews, measures based on throughput and velocity rather than completing specifications. So it was a really big change, a really positive change in everyone. But at the heart of it, what we really wanted to do was build something passenger-focused.

Travel for business or leisure can be stressful so simplicity and ease of use are as important on the digital journey as they are on the physical one. Corrigan observed:

One thing anyone who's designing user experience will know: ‘simple’ is actually really, really hard.

Finding a way to represent the right level of detail and the right passenger journey was helped along by Salesforce Business Manager. For example, Heathrow deployed a 'floating basket' for purchase and checkout, he said:

We kept the basket floating all the time. The reason for this is to create a feeling of control and transparency for customers. Because if customers don't see how the price is evolving as they put things in the basket, when you get to the end of the journey, it can be a bit of a surprise, so they drop out. We wanted to make sure it's as transparent as possible.

The end result has taken off with passengers. Corrigan noted:

When we benchmarked and tested during development, it was more than twice as fast as a legacy platform, which is really important. Customers don't use the product if it drops out. Even more importantly it's not just customers, it's actually search. Fourteen percent of the traffic for e-commerce is search. Again, if it's not fast, customers don't use it. We were also one of the first teams I think, to use Salesforce Order Management because we wanted to give customers control so they were able to edit and change the basket.

Getting it right

With limited access to usability testing, it can be challenging to know if a  platform is delivering what customers truly want from their experience. With this in mind, as Heathrow continues to develop its platform with Salesforce, I asked Corrigan how data traffic was being used to inform the platform in future. He told me: 

We've done a usability audit because we weren't able to do as much customer testing as we normally would during the COVID period. This has helped to identify and inform future changes to aspects that can be improved, expanded and will continue to evolve over time. This includes using data to understand what features customers are using most and ones that need further development.

The teams behind the scenes have the imperative of keeping content up to date, and making it flow in a way that reflect a variety of passenger journeys and connected data across the omni-channel. It can be easy to forget the culture change required to deliver a roadmap as travel services continue to re-open.

So what’s next? Linking back to the strategic pillars mentioned at the outset, the plan is to build an expanded retail offering, giving customers one basket to add parking reservations, security fast-track, lounge access and reserve-and-collect.

Some hard decisions have had to be made by the airline industry in recent times – and made quickly.  Building a future-proofed platform using a different project approach, and increasing growth despite a smaller number of passengers is no small feat.

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