TFWA’s new Digital Village could be the best idea the Association has had in years. Of late, conference keynote speakers, industry leaders and experienced trade press commentators have all been voicing the same fear: the global travel-retail business is in danger of becoming yesterday’s retail channel.

All too often the Millennial demographic (aged around 18-35), who lest we forget are now are the largest generational group travelling today, feel duty-free has nothing much to offer them.

If it is to survive and flourish, our industry must reach out to this key customer group and learn to speak their language—a lingo that is often baffling to anyone aged over 45 with its tweets, posts, emojis, memes, hashtags, likes and followers. Yes, if there’s one thing that unites the Millennial generation, it’s their love of digital technology, a trend evident in the exponential growth of smartphone ownership

According to a recent report by Strategy Analytics, the global smartphone penetration rate will increase to 44% in 2017, up from 39% in 2016. By 2022, the penetration rate will further increase to 59%. You are more likely to prise a gazelle from a lion’s jaw than take a smartphone away from a millennial so we need to start communicating via the incredibly powerful, hand-sized computers must of us have stowed away in our jacket pockets.

We have been glacially slow as a business to rise the digital challenge. It’s true a handful of airports and travel-retailers have made a decent fist of setting up shop online. For instance, Singapore Changi’s website allows travellers to browse and pre-order products from many of its retail concessionaires, while Gebr. Heinemann’s Heinemann smartphone app gives customers the chance not only to pre-order goods, but also join a loyalty programme and receive details of in-store offers and promotions.

What the wider industry needs, however, is expert outside help of the techie sort, which is where the Digital Village comes in. Among the 30 first-time exhibitors taking up space in the 840sq m Village are firms such as China Smiling, which aims to help brands communicate with Chinese consumers via social media and SKYDeals, which promises to assist the beleaguered in-flight retail sector by providing a tailored shopping experience through airlines’ own inflight entertainment systems.

Whether the services offered by these mostly small to medium-sized exhibitors can succeed in helping the duty-free industry play digital catch-up in a world dominated by internet giants like Amazon and Google remains to be seen, of course, but at least the TFWA is doing something proactive about an issue, which is set to affect us all in the years to come.

Peter Marshall

Founder: Arts
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