China’s high-speed rail ‘poised for retail revolution’

By Luke Barras-hill |

The China Watch webinar took place on TFWA’s 365 digital platform earlier this week.

The high-speed railway network in China offers significant potential but can take a ‘qualitative leap’ to improve commercial standards, according to Lagardère Travel Retail North Asia CEO Eudes Fabre.

Speaking during the TFWA ‘China Watch’ webinar on Tuesday (29 March), Fabre said the current retail infrastructure is up to 10 years behind that of the country’s airports.

However, the rail market is witnessing rapid development and affords accessibility to travellers wishing to explore remote parts of China.

As such, Fabre maintained that the high-speed network remains an important strategic area for Lagardère Travel Retail.

“We are on the cusp of seeing the next revolution in the high-speed railway network,” he told delegates attending the 90-minute virtual session. “The hardware is already there. These stations are world class in terms of scale, architecture and functionality and we spot a really good opportunity to start improving the retail offer, not only bringing in new brands and redeveloping the commercial offer, but also to develop the spending culture that doesn’t yet exist in the railway stations.

“The railway commercial offer is perhaps 5-10 years behind what we see in airports now. There is a massive opportunity for a qualitative leap, but also to position the railway hubs as commercial centres in their own right.”

SEIZING ON THE TRAFFIC BOOM

In an interview for last year’s China Report (see the July/August e-zine), Fabre spoke of his desire to uprade the brand mix and introduce new categories across China’s high-speed railway network.

Eudes Fabre, CEO North Asia at Lagardère Travel Retail (right), said huge strides have been made in China’s airport retail sector over the past decade by introducing new brands, competitive pricing and a commitment to customer service that has driven up conversion levels, average spending and dwell time – and railways can follow suit.

Lagardère Travel Retail currently has a presence in around 30 stations, focusing mainly on travel essentials (news and convenience), although it is pursuing new opportunities in fashion, accessories and beauty.

Over time, according to Fabre, railways can cannibalise traffic from the airports to present a reliable, convenient alternative to the retail proposition.

“We want to leverage our experience that we have in the airports but also our long-term presence in the train stations, as we’ve been operating news, convenience and speciality retail in key railway hubs for a decade now,” he continued.

While shopping dwell time lags behind the levels seen in the passenger terminals, railways can offset this through sheer travel volumes to maximise retail exposure from commuters as well as long-haul travellers.

“In airports 10 years ago, the conversion rate of the commercial offer – be it retail or F&B – was very low,” commented Fabre. “Through the introduction of new brands, commitments to pricing parity and an unrelenting focus on service, the airports have done a great job raising conversion, average spend, dwell time and making airports a trendy shopping destination.”

Fabre: Despite the Covid pandemic, strong traffic growth is being witnessed across the railways network.

In a wide-ranging conversation with TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer, Fabre was asked about Lagardère Travel Retail’s blockbuster alliance with JD.com.

The e-commerce giant, together with China Jianyin Investment (JIC), took a 22.36% stake in Lagardère Travel Retail Asia late last year.

In divesting the share, Lagardère Travel Retail is aiming to accelerate its growth in China and leverage digitalisation in areas such as omni-channel retailing and across the supply chain.

Earlier this month, the joint venture alliance strengthened after partnering with Sinopharm subsidiary China National Service Corporation (CNSC) in a move that will buffer CNSC’s online and offline duty free presence.

Offering an update on the partnership, Fabre acknowledged that travel retail is not immune to the growth of e-commerce and digital selling, adding that the focus for Lagardère is on developing a traveller-centric, omni-channel approach to retailing that can serve its airport and brand partners.

“We have the key advantage of having high-trafficked locations in a space where people still have the time and compulsion to buy,” he added, pointing to Hainan as a pioneering location to enhance the omni-channel duty free business model.

Session 1 featured a timely update from Duty Free Expert’s Jason Cao, who shared the latest data on Hainan’s flourishing duty free market. Last year, the average ticket jumped 20% versus 2020. Duty free sales hit RMB60.2 billion/US$9.5 billion in 2021 and the offshore market is eyeing RMB100 billion this year ahead of an estimated RMB300 billion in 2025.

Session 1 of TFWA’ China Watch webinar entitled ‘New opportunities in Chinese travel retail’ also featured contributions from Zeng Qun, Deputy General Manager at Wangfujing Duty Free; Jason Cao, Founder of Duty Free Expert and Amberich International; and Nancy Dai, Market Analyst at travel trends specialist ForwardKeys.

The session assessed the shape of Chinese travel retail, including Hainan’s offshore duty free engine room, in addition to the growth in the duty paid sector and the rise of China’s second tier cities.

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