Unifree to add finishing touches at Istanbul Airport

By Andrew Pentol |


The core duty free stores have been trading since the airport opened in April 2019.

Unifree Duty Free is on track to open a new department store concept in the center of Zone 5 at Istanbul Airport next month.

The 850sq m open-plan concept will be reminiscent of the Harrods department store located in Central London and Selfridges chain of high-end department shops in the UK. Located in Zone 5 in the heart of the luxury area, the store will comprise generic furniture with around 10-12 brands.

“There will be world-class brands covering fashion accessories, sunglasses and a bit of jewellery,” Sinan İşçimenler, Business Development Director, Unifree Duty Free told TRBusiness. “It is one big area with no walls, just like a department store,” he added.

As of September 2019, the 53,000sq m retail space comprised 96 shops and 73 brands, up from 90 stores and 65 brands the month before. The core duty free stores have been trading since the airport officially opened in April following consecutive delays.

A plethora of openings followed in the luxury area of the Bosphorous Zone including a Saint Laurent boutique, Bottega Veneta store and Moncler boutique all operated by Unifree, which received more than 110,000 Chinese passengers during a special event (27 September to 10 October) to mark the Golden Week holiday.


ATÜ Duty Free, which ran the duty free at the old Istanbul Airport and is a sub-operator of Unifree, operates a number of branded stores at the airport including Hermès, Bulgari, Celine, Fendi, Loro Piana, Michael Kors, Montblanc, Longchamp, Etro, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ermenegildo Zegna, Furla, Paul & Shark and a Luxury Timepieces concept (multi brand watches and jewellery).


The Prada store in the luxury area of the Bosphorous Zone carries leathergoods, footwear and accessories for men and women.

Speaking extensively to TRBusiness in Istanbul, Ian Foster, Chief Commercial Officer, Unifree Duty Free, who assumed the role in June 2019 said: “All of what we planned at the start of the project [which did not actually include the aforementioned department store concept] will be 100% open by the end of the calendar year.”

Offering his own take on the hugely impressive luxury and core category offer in the Bosphorous Zone, Foster commented: “I am used to running airports, but this is without doubt the most unique and grandest  there is.

“It is a privilege every day to come to work and walk down the Bosphorous Zone with so many amazing international brands and our core duty free shops, which I feel are the greatest in the world.”

Already boasting a large retail footprint, Foster told TRBusiness there is reserve space to grow in the future. Before determining how the space can be utilised, Unifree will wait for passenger numbers —which were up just 6% as of 16 September 2019 — to increase.

“We haven’t seen huge passenger growth and will finish the year with between 40 and 45 million passengers. Next year, we are expecting between 55 million and 60 million passengers and the following year we are forecasting 90 million.

“In 2023, the aim is to have an airport with 200 million passengers. We are ready for the growth, but not looking to majorly expand in the next year or two as the passenger growth won’t be there yet.”


Unifree says the Moncler boutique reflects the brand’s aesthetic and vision.

According to Foster, Unifree, which is 60% owned by Gebr. Heinemann and 40% by Turkish shareholders, has a long list of brands fighting to enter the Istanbul Airport retail space.

“They have seen how good the airport is. Performance is fantastic and mainly driven by the core duty free. The luxury brands including Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermès, however, are exceeding expectations. We need to thank Heinemann for introducing these big brands to us. Very few were reluctant to come.”

Offering a further flavour of the overall Istanbul Airport retail offer, İşçimenler remarked: “Ultimately, we will have 120 stores and marketplaces. The latter are open-space sales areas which are one of the biggest differentiators between us and other airports.

“There are a good number of international and local brands. The percentage of local brands is higher than we first thought, but these are needed to create a real sense of place.”

He added: “We have brands which are servicing different visitor segments including discounters with lower-budget products.”

Foster commented: “High-street brands are available which Turkish passengers are familiar with and these are mixed with the luxury offer.”


Sinan İşçimenler, Business Development Director, Unifree Duty Free (left) and Ian Foster, Chief Commercial Officer, Unifree Duty Free reveal a plan of the Bosphorous Zone.


Total sales performance is above budget and the commercial plan and there are opportunities to grow through digital marketing and improved communication.

“The airport is large as you know. Passengers are still unfamiliar with it and are rushing to the gates as they feel it is so big. Once they familiarise themselves with the airport and know where the gates are, dwell time with us will increase,” Foster emphasised.

In order to increase dwell time, Unifree is planning to introduce further attractions such as bands and DJs. “Sinan has also come with up the idea of a kids play area with PlayStations,” he enthused.

Despite issues with dwell time, Foster is confident in Unifree’s ability to capture the attention of passengers wherever they are in the terminal. “If they disappear to the piers, we have the core categories and localisation element with the bazaars etc.

“As far as the luxury brands are concerned, we need to keep them in the Bosphorous Zone and increase dwell time.”


Unifree has placed a strong emphasis on digitalisation at Istanbul Airport.

Unifree, which has a 25-year exclusive retail contract and manages the sub-leasing of all brands, reviews the performance of brands on a daily basis. Foster said: “It is our job as master lease manager and in our best interest to help brands that are underperforming or suffering and determine if the problems relate to communication, marketing, assortment, pricing or store placement.

“Sinan and his team will then help them create an improvement plan in the hope things will improve. If, however, we find a brand isn’t right for our customers, we will work with them to facilitate an exit and focus on bringing in new brands.

“Currently, we are extremely happy with the brands we have and how they are performing.”

Regarding the core duty free offer, arrivals in particular, Foster once again highlights lower than expected passenger growth. “Passenger growth may be flat, but sales performance is up significantly,” he noted.


A Bottega Veneta boutique was among multiple openings in the luxury area.

The arrivals business, which comprises 18% of total sales, encompasses four large duty free stores and a recently added technology outlet.

“70% of arrivals sales come from liquor and tobacco with 75% to 80% of sales from Turkish passengers. Our prices on liquor and tobacco are phenomenal compared to the domestic market.”

One negative is the low inbound duty free Customs allowance (600 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars and 250g of tobacco, one litre of alcohol with a volume of over 22% and five bottles —a maximum 120ml each — of perfume and eau de toilette) which certainly impacts arrivals sales.

“We are certainly limited in terms of allowances. Otherwise, the sky would be the limit. It is important to point out though that we do have the option to extend the arrivals stores, bring them to the front of the elevators and create a walkthrough environment.”


Anyone passing through Istanbul Airport will certainly appreciate Unifree’s huge focus on digitisation. Establishing a strong digital footprint from the outset was a major priority yet one of its biggest challenges.

İşçimenler explained: “We have tried to pick screens which are as eco-friendly as possible and save as much energy as possible. This is because we and the airport in general are using a tremendous amount of power. The purpose of the screens is to present our identity and promotions to passengers because the airport is huge and people need direction.”

He added: “The duty free and travel industry will place even further emphasis on digitalisation in the coming years. This is why our sub-operators are implementing digital concepts when possible.”

On the partnership with airport operator İGA Havalimani İşletmesi, Iscimenler describes it as a ‘win-win relationship’.


Total sales performance is above budget, according to Unifree.

“They are very supportive, progress and technology focused and commercially minded,” he remarked.

Foster, who joined the company when the shops were already built, is buoyed by the successful implementation of all commercial actions agreed at the outset. He now believes the company must take a ‘step back and regroup’ while the passenger flow stabilises.

“Flights are still coming from different gates and piers and runways are yet to be built. Once the passenger flow stabilises, we will be able to obtain and analyse data.”

He concluded: “After the remaining stores are finalised, we must analyse our performance based on passenger needs, productivity and sales per passenger and revaluate and build for next year.”

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