Retail shops at airports across the country have been doing brisk business selling “bento” (boxed meals) made with local delicacies.

In fact, these local specialties have become a key attraction for travelers, not only for their own enjoyment, but as souvenirs for families and friends back home.

Bento lovers often visit airports just to lay their hands on favored delicacies.

Inspired by the success of such fare, confectioners are now trying to cash in on airport sweets.

A growing number of airports are developing limited-edition products with the help of confectioners in hopes of luring more travelers by offering exclusive treats available at just one venue.

Japan Airport Terminal Co., which operates Haneda airport in Tokyo, began selling its own line of sweets in partnership with confectioners when its second terminal opened in December 2004.

The firm says its products are all one of a kind and available only at Haneda, which is filled with shops selling Japanese and Western sweets.

“We thought that any product that can beat the competition here is bound to become a hit,” said Koto Nagase, an airport marketing official.

The new airport sweets were developed with the help of female staff with two important attributes: a sweet tooth and a nose for trends.

“Women have an eye for things that are in vogue, including desserts, so we believed their ideas would be helpful in creating products that people would feel like buying both for themselves and as presents,” Nagase said.

The female staff suggested products be shaped for easy nibbling on the plane or while touring a destination.

And making packages with many small servings ensures there is enough to go around for colleagues back at the office, they pointed out.

Souvenir buying is perhaps more important in Japan than anywhere else in the world — many Japanese travelers feel obligated to purchase presents for their friends and coworkers that convey the flavor of the places they visit.

Japan Airport Terminal has eight snack-size items in all, including cookies, jellies and Western and Japanese cakes. Two of the eight products change with the seasons.

Under the new airport brand, a single serving of cake with fresh cream and sliced strawberries, for example, retails for 450 yen. Although they are a bit more expensive than competing products, the new sweets are selling well, airport officials said.

Seeing Haneda’s success, other airports are also starting to sell exclusive sweets.

Kansai International Airport in Osaka opened a souvenir shop last March devoted to selling airport sweets.

The airport hired well-known local patissiers to develop five items, including Japanese cakes flavored with green tea and “azuki” sweet bean paste. It has also created two packages of assorted cookies, one that sells for 1,260 yen and one for 2,100 yen.

The cookies are a hit, with over 1,000 boxes sold each month, the airport said.

“The airport will continue turning out new products because we want our sweets to become one of the things customers look forward to in using our airport,” said Kazuhiro Kojima, who is in charge of retailing at Kansai airport.

Confectioners have also cottoned on to the trend.

Morinaga Milk Industry Co. has developed a dessert line based on suggestions from flight attendants at All Nippon Airways Co. A limited number of the products hit the shelves of Haneda airport stores last November and they are now sold through supermarkets and convenience stores as well.

“We have tried to reproduce the taste of popular sweets in various other countries by having flight attendants take part in the product-development process,” said Ayako Takabatake, a Morinaga official who is in charge of the new marketing initiative. The crew members’ suggestions were invaluable because they are acquainted with life’s luxuries through their frequent trips abroad, Takabatake reckoned.

The still underutilized brand cachet of airports points to more bright ideas aimed at attracting passengers looking for a taste of faraway places.

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