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A mixed bag looking ahead
Published:  19 February, 2018

There is a refreshing sense of optimism surrounding the travel retail business which I haven’t seen for quite a few years.

Leading airports and travel retailers such as Seoul Incheon and Dubai Duty Free have defied tough trading conditions to post strong sales figures for 2017. The global macroeconomic picture is looking better than it has for a long time and Airports Council International forecasts international passenger traffic will grow at a healthy CAGR of 8.4%.

It’s not quite time to break out the champagne. The penetration rate for spirits in travel retail remains at a worryingly low 12%, so there is no room for complacency. Yet, given the number of press releases I’ve seen recently heralding new exclusives such as the Glenmorangie Cadboll and retail investments such as the new Johnnie Walker House at Miami airport, it’s obvious the drinks industry remains fully engaged in the channel.

What are the opportunities and challenges facing the sector in 2018? Well, DFS Group’s decision late last year to include an area devoted to craft spirits in its new store at Singapore Changi T4 was one of the first occasions the industry has acknowledged the impact of the craft movement. I suspect other retailers will follow suit. The challenge for craft producers will be winning that first listing with a major operator then living with the punishing margins they demand.

Travel retail exclusives offer passengers something different from the high street and avoid nasty price comparisons. But, in my experience, they are still often poorly communicated on-pack and in-store. A knee-high shelf-talker in a 12-point font just isn’t going to cut it. Larger and clearer signage and even dedicated wall-bays and gondolas are a far better idea.

The role of digital is only going to become more important over the next 12 months. I’ve seen some very impressive activations in other product categories of late, from smart mirrors that allow travellers to try on sunglasses and outfits virtually, to 3D printers that can print vegan sweets in-store.

The liquor category is moving in the right direction, but more back-office work needs to be done. Travellers should be able to access product information, prices and promotional messages easily on their smartphones.

The trend towards lower-strength alcoholic drinks has been apparent in the domestic markets for several years, yet little has been done so far to exploit the trend in travel retail where traditionally the focus has been on high-strength spirits offering better margins. The success of Aperol, smaller bottle sizes and lower-strength drinks such as vermouth and sherry, should perhaps force a rethink. In dry markets, there is also potential for zero-alcohol beers and premium distilled non-alcoholic spirits.

The news last month that British Airways is reviewing the need for duty free shopping on its long-haul routes is another blow for a sector already reeling after Australian flag carrier Qantas announced it was axing its onboard shopping programme last December. But the buy-on-board offer of many low-cost airlines is premiumising rapidly, so don’t write off airlines just because the days of the inflight duty free trolley are numbered.