What makes the luxury travel retail shopper tick?

The long-running success of the DFS Masters of Wines & Spirits event underlines the strength of the luxury drinks sector in travel retail, but shopper attitudes in this ultra-premium tier are changing, writes Joe Bates.

The annual Macao-based Masters of Wines & Spirits organised by DFS Group is always a must-attend event for Chinese luxury spirits connoisseurs and collectors. For its most recent 12th incarnation, however, the upmarket drinks showcase expanded in size and reach, going Stateside for the first time by staging an exclusive gala event in Los Angeles in April and a themed in-store exhibition at Los Angeles Airport (LAX), which ran until the end of last month.

Masters of Wines & Spirits exhibitions were also opened at New York JFK and San Francisco airports – both important US hubs where, like at LAX, DFS Group boasts long-standing duty-free concessions.

As for the earlier Los Angeles gala event, it featured masterclasses from Scotch whiskies such as Glenmorangie, The Macallan, Royal Salute and Tomatin, as well as the Napa Valley winery Shafer.

Meanwhile, in late May, two gala events were held at the T Galleria by DFS, Macau, City of Dreams store, where VIP guests experienced food and wine-pairing dinners and a series of expert-led masterclasses from Bladnoch and Glenmorangie whiskies, as well as Ao Yun, the luxury Chinese wine label created by Moët Hennessy. Shoppers were then able to view the collection of wines and spirits at a special exhibition at the City of Dreams store, which runs until the end of this month.

Around 200 wines and spirits were showcased at this year’s events from more than 100 producers. Among the collectable whiskies on display were: The Macallan’s The Golden Age of Travel: The Motor Car, an archived release, distilled in 1937 and presented in an automobile-themed Lalique decanter; Glenmorangie Pommard Cask Finish 25 Year Old, aged for the final 15 years of its maturation in Pommard red wine French oak cask; and Tomatin Aged 50 Years, a single-cask release aged in a first-fill oloroso sherry hogshead.

Showcase brands

Other spirits showcased included Hennessy Paradis, a pinnacle expression from the famous Cognac house, a blend of 100 rare eaux-de-vie; Eagle Rare Double Eagle Very Rare, a limited-edition 20-year-old bourbon; Chichibu Single Cask #5858 Mizunara Heads Hogshead, a single-cask release from one of Japan’s newer distilleries; and Grand Marnier Grande Cuvée Quintessence, an ultra-premium release from the famous French liqueur producer, boasting Hors d’Age Cognacs aged up to 70 years.

The continued and growing success of the DFS Masters of Wines & Spirits underlines the resilience of demand for luxury spirits in travel retail. This strength was underlined in the latest figures released by IWSR Drinks Market Analysis focusing on the performance of the overall alcohol beverage market in 2023. In an otherwise difficult trading year due to inflationary pressures, the premiumisation trend in travel retail continued, albeit with more promotional activity, the IWSR noted.

Interestingly, recent findings from travel retail research firm m1nd-set suggest it is actually younger LDA travellers who are driving much of this growth in luxury drinks sales.

The majority of luxury shoppers (57%) in travel retail are under 35, with Millennials accounting for 42% and Gen Zs 15%, respectively. Moreover, by the end of the decade, Gen Zs and Gen Alphas – those born from the early 2010s to the mid-2020s – will comprise 36% of the luxury market.

It transpires that 62% of luxury shoppers in travel retail are men, many of them travelling in either business or first class. They are far more likely to visit travel retail stores than normal shoppers and more likely to purchase – their conversion rate is a sky-high 81%. Alcohol is the third most popular category among these high rollers after fragrances and fashion/accessories, with 36% purchasing it – 10% more than non-luxury shoppers.

What makes this valued group of customers tick? According to m1nd-set’s findings, key purchase drivers include exclusivity, familiarity with the brand and the desire to self-treat and indulge themselves. As for influences, an astonishing 85% of luxury shoppers are swayed by information from influencers, social media posts, KOLs (key opinion leaders), and livestreams.

Old-school advice and recommendations from in-store sales staff also rated highly at 83%, underscoring the continued need for high levels of in-house and external training programmes by travel retailers.

Fascinatingly, m1nd-set’s research also nixes the lazy assumption that wealthier travellers might care less about environmental and social issues. A high 71% said that they would switch brands and opt for an alternative due to the brand owner’s commitment to social, political or green issues. This rate is 21% higher than the level among non-luxury shoppers.

Once upon a time travel retail was all about social aspiration, brand-driven status symbols and ostentatious displays of wealth. Today, however, the age of ‘quiet luxury’ has dawned and it would appear a social conscience has rapidly become every bit as fashionable as the latest designer brand.