DF buyers will think twice if ‘sustainable merits’ of goods unclear, shows study

By Luke Barras-hill |

TFWA sustainability webinar 2020A newly released TFWA study on sustainability reveals that almost half (46%) of travelling consumers consider it to be of high importance when shopping in duty free.

On 16 July, Stephen Hillam, Managing Director of Pi Insight shared key findings from the TFWA Sustainability in Travel Retail Study 2020 – published for TFWA members in June – via a Zoom webinar. Hillam co-authored the report.

Among the headline findings, almost two fifths of consumers (36%) indicated that their shopping behaviours would be significantly impacted as a result of an item’s sustainability credentials, and half (50%) would be less likely to purchase an item in duty free if they were unable to check such credentials.


Tellingly, a much higher percentage (71%) of consumers would have their purchase decisions influenced if presented with an item boasting ‘sustainability credentials’, if they had to choose between products.

The two-phase study featured research phases aimed at unboxing how sustainability affects global travel and shopping behaviours.

Phase one involved a quantitative consumer survey featuring 2,456 interviews among 11 key travelling and duty free shopping nationalities.

Phase 2 consisted of telephone interviews among key industry stakeholders, with representation from brands in the alcohol, beauty, confectionery, tobacco and electronics sectors, plus retailers and airports.

TFWA sustainability credentials slide

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Introducing the session, TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer said the association has undertaken a major body of research that has generated strong attention from across the industry.

“The importance of sustainability I feel is only going to grow in a post-Covid world,” commented Rimmer. “It is an issue that will become more important as we emerge from the situation we face.”

Hillam set the scene by analysing consumers’ definitions of sustainability – a diverse term covering different things to different people: from environmental and ethical considerations and ascribing value to good quality or long-lasting items, to minimising consumption and choosing products that avoid plastics or come from recycled or recyclable materials.

Importance of sustainability slide TFWA

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“As sustainability continues to have this increasing influence on all of our day-to-day lives, it will undoubtedly be having an impact on travelling consumers’ behaviours when they are in the travel retail environment,” he commented.

Underpinning the research was an important question: what role does sustainability play in influencing travel and shopping behaviours?

The webinar focused on four key areas: the importance and influence of sustainability, priority areas, overcoming obstacles and optimising communications.


Interestingly, just under half (46%) of respondents considered sustainability to be of high importance when choosing what to purchase in travel retail, but that importance falls when compared with the domestic market (58%).

Broken down by nationality, Indian (56%), Chinese (53%), Brazilian (52%) and French (51%) travellers placed more importance on sustainability.

Purchasers swayed by sustainability

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Unsurprisingly, the importance of sustainability pervaded most categories in travel retail, but it was notable in electronics (77%) and fashion and accessories (75%). Though alcohol and tobacco were less affected.

“This isn’t an opportunity that lies in one aspect of our channel; it is a factor across all the categories we looked at,” commented Hillam, in doing so pointing to the huge divergence in perceptions of sustainable brands and items.

For instance, just under half (47%) said the items allows them to act more responsibly, nearly two fifths (35%) would be more likely to recommend the item, just over one quarter (33%) believe the item is better quality and smaller percentage than that (31%) believe the item is worth paying for.

Categories influenced by sustainability

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Hillam went on to identity five priority areas of sustainability within travel retail. Top of that list was reducing single-use plastics – a topic TRBusiness has been particularly vocal about via the Travel Retail Sustainability Forum and Plastic Pledge.

Americans, Britons, Brazilians, Chinese, Germans, Indians and Swedes all ranked tackling single-use plastics as number one in a list of their top five sustainability priorities.

While some shoppers acknowledge that single-use plastic usage is unavoidable, in such cases there is added demand for materials that are recyclable. They also believe that where single-use plastics are used, they could be subject to an additional levy.


After extrapolating the different strategic approaches taken by landlords, retailers and brands in approaching sustainability, Hillam touched on six obstacles to sustainable development in travel retail: consumer, commercial, regulations, internal, implementation and market dynamics.

Although a large number of organisations in travel retail are approaching sustainability in some way, many are at different stages of development, he outlined.

Single use plastics nationalitiy importance

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The way strategies are executed can also differ between stakeholder groups such as landlords, retailers and brands.

Consumer acceptance of sustainability practices is a key challenge, stressed Hillam, particularly when these are not familiar or common within the domestic market i.e. reducing packaging or plastic bag usage.

Another challenge lies in commercial costs, with sustainable practices adding expenditure to operations. In some cases, this can become a barrier to packaging innovation where sustainable alternatives might not perceived as effective as traditional materials.

Regulatory hurdles such as inconsistencies between the way these are administered across countries or territories poses challenges for the cross-channel export business, where blanket regulations ignore the nuances of duty free’s unique trading environment.

Categories assessment of single use plastics

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Meanwhile, implementing sustainability measures such as reducing packaging volumes can in some instances hinder retail effectiveness in terms of packaging usability and reduce available space for consumer communications.

With global airports handling multiple travelling nationalities, there is a risk of sending conflicting messages to consumers between merchandising goods that are deemed sustainable, versus meeting consumer demands for items that are aesthetically pleasing, indicated Hillam.

As such, understanding price sensitivity and the ‘commercial equation’ are key, he suggested, with shoppers opting for lower-priced goods being an enduring influencer to spend.

In turn, ‘will versus skill’ is a conflict barrier: even if there is a desire to deliver sustainability, sustainable options are in some cases either not available or do not offer the quality standards required.

Defining sustainability slide TFWA

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Hillam then discussed the power of collaboration and aligning on common goals to define the path towards sustainability to overcome obstacles.

A key interlocutor to mitigating against these lies in optimising communications.

When it comes to information searching, nearly half (48%) of travelling consumers will look at information regarding a product’s sustainability when in the duty free store. Specifically, almost half would wait until they are in the duty free store before looking for information.

TFWA Sustainability Study in Travel Retail 2020

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Interestingly, 59% of shoppers would like to be made aware of official certifications on products before they buy.

While analogue communications such as on-pack and on-shelf communications are considered effective, consuming information through digital channels such as social media, press releases, websites and various other touchpoints at airports continues to appeal.

All images courtesy of TFWA/Pi Insight.


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