Why duty free must do better

It’s one of the worst PR disasters to have hit the duty free industry in the almost two decades i’ve been covering the business.

For anybody who missed it, the bare bones of this sorry saga are as follows. In February, a whistle-blower who apparently worked for World Duty Free (WDF) at Heathrow airport posted on popular Chinese social media site Weibo details of what appeared to a be a discriminatory shopping promotion, in which travellers flying to China had to pay much more than those flying to other destinations to receive a 20% discount voucher.

Many users of the Chinese micro-blogging site were outraged and started to complain online. The story quickly went viral, being picked up by newspapers and websites in the UK and China. WDF’s first attempt at an apology only appeared to make the situation worse. Chinese people in their hundreds left comments on the retailer’s Facebook page, accusing it of being “racist” and calling for a boycott of WDF’s stores and even Heathrow airport.

WDF then issued a more fulsome apology: “As a global company we are committed to treating all our customers with respect and in a consistent and fair way. We would like to offer our sincere apologies to our customers who were in any way made to feel this was not the case.”

Such a promotion should never have been allowed to run, that much is clear. Yet there are also some wider lessons to be learned for the industry. First, in an age dominated by the agenda-setting power of social media, duty free must become more nimble and deft at real-time crisis management. It’s true that much of the airport retail sector is run by large, multinational retailers with multiple layers of management. It’s traditionally taken a fair amount of time to respond to events and issue press statements, but in the 24/7 world of Weibo and Twitter, we have to do better.

The travel retail industry is so often bound up in its own internal issues, such as fighting anti-tobacco legislation, high airport rental fees and airline rules on hand luggage that it can forget it needs to promote and talk to the people who actually matter – the punters. The business must become more adept at championing itself when times are good, but also quickly and prominently responding to crises when they occur, as they always do in any business.

When things go wrong, damning reviews, scathing posts and complaining tweets should be responded to quickly and not left unanswered and unchallenged. If needed, fulsome apologies should be issued without delay. Nobody wants to eat a weighty slice of humble pie, but sometimes there’s no other option.

There has always been a tendency for this business to take its customers (and their wallets) for granted – never more so than in the case of high-spending Chinese travellers, it would seem. There is still mention at industry conferences and workshops of travel retail having and benefiting from a ‘captive audience’. I admit I’ve written the phrase myself countless times over the years, but this persistent mindset that takes its customers for granted needs to be consigned to the dustbin.

Airport passenger numbers continue to rise year on year but, as many industry observers have rightly pointed out, the travel retail business is increasingly having to battle to remain relevant for any traveller aged below 40. This latest blunder follows on from the UK airport boarding pass row of 2015. Both stories are ultimately very damaging to a retail sector that now badly needs to shake off its growing public reputation as an outdated, rip-off industry, which takes its customers for granted.