If you’re not ready for China’s travelling shoppers then you are not ready for modern travel retail

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By Marco Passoni

As we all know, China’s borders are open once more and the country’s much-discussed travelling shoppers are able to take to the skies once more. And it seems they are going to do so. Bookings are on the rise and experts are predicting a return to international travel in the second half of this year.

That has got tongues going in the travel retail sector – and the luxury sector for that matter. China’s shoppers, once among the highest spenders in the world, are being spoken of in mythical terms. People are asking how to engage and convert these consumers who have been focused entirely on their domestic market for three years.

I have spoken before about my belief that arranging travel retail solely to fit the needs of China’s shoppers would be a foolish move today. We have rebuilt a robust and effective market in the wake of the pandemic and uncertainties remain over how much spend will come out of China and how fast it will do so.

But actually, today, I think a bigger question looms: Are China’s shoppers that unique?

I listened with interest last week to the TFWA webinars on China, the emerging travel trends and shopper behaviours. A few words came up over and again: Luxury, experience, personalisation, digital…

These are not new concepts or ideas. They are things we should all be on top of as they relate to the needs and desires of shoppers, especially high-spending shoppers, the world over.

Today, a big question looms: Are China’s shoppers that unique?

If you look deeper at analysis of Chinese shopping habits, you find more of the same. In a new report from Bain & Co (Setting a New Pace for Personal Luxury Growth in China) we are treated to an insight into the key factors driving luxury spend in China. Duty free is highlighted as a key way to engage these shoppers, but the report also highlights a need for awareness over pricing. Now pricing is something which the travel retail sector would like to pretend is not an issue, but it is – and it is one we must not ignore. That is not just true because Chinese shoppers are back.

As the Bain & Co report puts it: “Chinese luxury consumers have distinct shopping behaviours and preferences.”

The same is true for all shopping consumers and it seems to me that in travel retail, the Chinese do not really stand alone. Mintel’s report, China Luxury and Fashion Market Insights Overview, also digs down deep on the factors shaping Chinese spend. Their revelations? A focus on digital, the metaverse and NFTS; the growing power of Gen Z and younger shoppers’ desire for brands which align with their personal branding; demand for local flavour and a wish for personalised engagement and experience.

All of these should, for me, already be a key focus for each and every one of us – and they should have been long before China opened its borders.

The TFWA webinar highlighted the impressive in-store developments which have taken place in China and how shoppers will expect more of the same wherever they shop. So, they should – and so does every other shopper. The world is so connected now that the highest bar in one country is the highest bar worldwide.

Is it possible that the return of Chinese shoppers to the global stage is just exposing shortcomings that we all already know exist with our offer? That there is a lack of innovative experiences, too much lacklustre and lip-service digital engagement, and missed opportunities on luxury.

Is it possible that the return of Chinese shoppers to the global stage is just exposing shortcomings that we all already know exist with our offer?

Chinese shoppers are not a golden goose with a unique set of rules bringing a market-saving payday. They are driven, demanding and digitally-advanced, but the basic things required to impress them are the same as shoppers are demanding the world over.

It is not about getting ready for Chinese shoppers to return; if you are not ready for them then you are not ready for the modern travel retail market.

Marco Passoni has decades of experience in the travel retail sector. He has spent the majority of his career in senior leader positions throughout the market, including a 12-year tenure as CEO of a leading international Duty Free distribution company and a further 8 years running a retail firm that operated fashion mono-brand stores in several international airports.
Today, as Senior Executive VP and founding partner of 2.0 & Partners, he leads the company’s efforts in developing and innovating services which create new opportunities and partnerships for all members of the travel retail Trinity. A former elite-level sailor, with a World Championship to his name, Marco now spends much of his time airside, experiencing the changing travel retail industry first-hand, to better guide partners and clients on the best way to do business in this vibrant and unique market.