High rollers still spend big

FOR SOMEBODY WHO WRITES ABOUT travel retail for a living I have to admit my purchases on the move are often rather modest. 

My typical airport shopping basket is limited to pairs of socks, yet another plug adaptor and a newspaper. Thankfully for the health of

the global duty free business there are other travellers in a position to flash a little more cash. Take the Dubai-based businessman, for instance, who last month splashed out on 19 bottles of The Macallan’s Fine & Rare Collection, a purchase worth a staggering $361,000 (£249,500).

The passenger bought the rare parcel of single malt whiskies (with vintages ranging from 1938 to 1974) from Dubai airport’s fine wine and spirits store Le Clos. It has developed an impressive track record for record- breaking sales transactions in the eight years it’s been trading. For example, only last December Le Clos sold the $33,000 (£22,800) Chapoutier Ermitage Mathusalem 2010 Collection— six mathusalems of the acclaimed vintage wine presented in a handcrafted presentation case.

I’d be the first to point out that such jaw-dropping sales are not exactly everyday occurrences. Nor are such isolated retail splurges going to turn around the industry’s current ailing fortunes. However, they do offer proof that there is a small, but not insignificant, group of super-wealthy travellers willing to spend enormous amounts of money. These individuals are impervious to the effect of economic downturns and retailers would be wise to roll out the red carpet in an effort to further loosen their purse strings.

From airports to ferries, a largely forgotten channel of the duty free business these days, which accounts for just 3.5% of total industry sales. Scandinavia is this niche sector’s strongest market by far and the annual highlight is undoubtedly Viking Line’s Whisky Fair, which was held onboard the Cinderella super-ferry last month. The three, day-long cruises attracted a record 4,500 whisky fans and some 26 whisky suppliers and exhibitors.

According to Viking Line shop manager Kris Harrison, the event’s continued success is down to a number of factors, including a typical 25% price saving over the domestic market, and the fact that passengers can taste and buy directly from the exhibitors (something prohibited at domestic whisky fairs in Scandinavia). Non-age statement whiskies may be gaining ground elsewhere in travel retail, but Harrison is adamant they’re not what local whisky fans are after. “Age statements are important to the Swedish customer so we scour the earth to find them.”

Among older whiskies exhibited were an Isle of Jura 30 Year Old and Bunnahabhain 33 Year Old. Among newcomers were Bacardi, Wolfburn, the Goan single- malt Paul John, Chicago-based distillery Koval, and the Finnish start-up, Helsinki Distillery.

The temptation for any retailer hosting such a successful single-product event, of course, is what the US military calls “mission creep”. Yet apart from cigars, confectionery and the odd rum, The Whisky Fair remains admirably focused on whisky eight years on from its inception. But Harrison reveals Viking Line is planning a separate craft beer fair in May. Whisky remains king in Sweden, but it would appear craft beer is now a close second.