Jeweler Flies Right With Airport Sales

What started as a booth of jewelry in a flea market in Albuquerque, N.M., 27 years ago has grown into a $10.8 million business for Kathleen and John Avila, managing partners of Avila Retail Development & Management. The couple own 14 Western and Native American gift stores in three airports in the West, and 37 percent of the company’s annual revenues come from jewelry sales.

Though the Avilas operate a retail store in Albuquerque, they expanded into airports in 1991. “You have a captive audience,” explains Kathleen. Theirs is huge: Every year 4 million people pass by their Albuquerque-based airport stores. That’s the kind of traffic that allows airport retailers to skip advertising.

But airport retailers face some unusual challenges. Incoming merchandise has to clear airport security, as do employees, who leave cars in designated lots far from the airport and take shuttles to the terminals. In addition, expenses such as rent can be higher than in traditional locations, but space for operations like accounting and storage is limited.

The Avilas depend on buying power and gross volume to make this unique niche work. They also have an edge in pricing: Airport retailers can charge 10 percent more than community-based peers. “It’s written into your contract,” says Kathleen.

The couple, who have 1,000-square-foot stores and 200-square-foot kiosks in Albuquerque, Denver, and Phoenix, might expand to other regions, including Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; and Portland, Ore. “Places with strong regional identities and tourism are good for us,” Kathleen says.

Since the Avilas’ stores are in the Western part of the country, their jewelry mix is 75 percent Native American and 25 percent fashion, and most is handmade. The annual Santa Fe Indian Market and the Philadelphia Buyers Market of American Craft supply the bulk of the selections. Prices range from $8 for a pair of Zuni-style earrings to $4,000 for a handmade Santo Domingo–style necklace made of turquoise, coral, sugilite, and a handmade silver clasp.

Another popular item is floral-motif rings made by Poppi Petals, Alexandria, Va. These are clusters of colorful glass petals on elastic bands that retail for $6 to $80. As Kathleen says of their selections, “They aren’t in your traditional jewelry store.”