Now boarding: Welcome to the global shopping mall

Airports are taking a bigger share of a booming luxury goods market – but Heathrow is missing out


Airports stopped being about flying a long time ago. From Heathrow to Hong Kong, to Shanghai's Pudong, the international traveller is confronted by giant billboards pushing the latest in global luxury: the former Harry Potter starlet Emma Watson implores us to buy L'Oreal's Lancôme, the French supermodel Constance Jablonski tempts us to Estée Lauder, Brad Pitt woos for Chanel. All are competing for the newly bulging wallets of a Chinese middle class travelling abroad in ever greater numbers and ready to spend on the biggest luxury brands that the West has to offer.

For those in charge of the world's biggest airports, the most important thing is to get travellers through security as quickly as possible to maximise their "dwell time" in the new 21st century temples of retail. Getting the planes to run on time seems almost incidental.

Travel retail, centred largely on airports, represents the fastest growing area of a global luxury market that is all but impervious to recession and was worth an estimated €212bn (£180bn) last year. International travellers spent some $50bn (£33bn) last year worldwide, a sum expected to double within six years. They spent $15bn alone on beauty products, which have seen double-digit growth for the past decade.

No wonder that France's L'Oreal – the world's biggest cosmetics company – has labelled the phenomenon a "shopping Eldorado".

The cosmetics giant, under chief executive Jean-Paul Agon, is looking to appeal to a global shopper "defined by where they shop rather than where they're from", according to divisional chief Barbara Lavernos.

These are the Brazilians who flock to the Champs Élysées or the Chinese, Russians and Nigerians whom Harrods counts among its best customers. They are the transient consumers spending an average of $100 a visit in the modern-day megacities that our leading international airports have become.

Last year there were 39 such "cities" handling 10,000 passengers a day. According to industry estimates, by 2030, there will be 87 – a sprawling market as big as a continent in its own right, according to L'Oreal, accounting for more than 10 billion passenger flights every year. We've come a long way from Shannon airport in 1947, and the first ever duty-free store opened by Brendan O'Regan to sell cheap booze and cigarettes. These days, wine, spirits and tobacco account for less than a quarter of the total travel spend: in contrast fashion and beauty now claim more than two-thirds.

The number of new passengers emerging from the Asia Pacific region has jumped 30 per cent since 2007 while the West struggled with the aftermath of credit crunch, financial crisis and recession. Within this fast-growing cohort, the Chinese are the biggest prize. Last year, 70 million Chinese travelled outside the country: next year it will be 100 million.

The aspirational Chinese consumer-traveller does 60 per cent of his or her luxury shopping abroad, and a lot of it is going straight into L'Oreal's tills. The travel retail arm of L'Oreal accounted for about €1bn of global sales last year – nearly a fifth of its Luxe luxury division, which itself makes up a quarter of the cosmetic group's global revenues. Luxe still trails Estée Lauder in the Asian market overall, but in travel retail it is the undisputed number one.

What are they buying? Unlike in the West, where the emphasis is on fragrances and make-up, Asian travellers spend about two-thirds of their cash on skincare products, compared with about a third in the US. A Korean woman will take five times as long on skincare at the end of the day than an American, for example, spending their cash on upmarket products such as Lancôme creams and also skin whitening products. The trend underlines the reasoning behind L'Oreal's bolstering of its skincare offering with the acquisition of Clarisonic, a US company, in 2011. Chinese men are another key target for skincare serums such as Biotherm.

The "new money" desire of aspirational Chinese buyers to splash out on traditional Western brands comes alongside a gifting culture accounting for almost 40 per cent of travel retail spend. While spending on luxury watches and jewellery has fallen away in the past year, largely due to a crackdown by the ruling Communist party keen to display a tough stance on corruption, the beauty segment has been far less affected. "We're not selling €10,000 watches," says Luxe president Nicolas Hieronimus. The fact that 13 of Lancôme's best performing stores are in airports speaks for itself.

But the worrying thing from a British perspective is that London – in particular Heathrow – is missing out on the largesse of the Chinese traveller. Heathrow may be Europe's biggest airport with more than 65 million international passengers last year, but it comes just 18th on the list of airports most frequently visited by Chinese travellers.

Hong Kong is naturally the first destination – due to the ease of travel – but the highest-ranked European airport is Charles de Gaulle, the ninth most popular destination. Heathrow ranks behind Frankfurt, Rome and even Malé in the Maldives – now a booming holiday destination among newly wealthy Chinese – in terms of visits. Experts say the UK's exclusion from the EU's Schengen visa agreement, which bizarrely makes it more difficult for travellers from the world's second biggest economy to get in, is largely responsible. It's an oversight you wonder if the spluttering UK economy can afford.

Despite the slowest growth for more than a decade for the Chinese economy overall in 2012, L'Oreal is convinced that the luxury travel boom triggered by its newly mobile population is set to last. Mr Hieronimus said the surge was "structural not cyclical" as the cosmetics giant and its rivals seek to cash in on rising demand for beauty and luxury goods among citizens of the world's emerging economies. In the "global playground for the global shopper", as Ms Lavernos puts it, from Dubai to Paris to Los Angeles, the Chinese are the biggest players of all.

Top 10 airport destinations

Chinese shoppers 2012:

Hong Kong


Taipei (Taoyuan)

Seoul (Incheon)

Singapore (Changi)


Kuala Lumpur

Tokyo (Narita)

Paris (Charles de Gaulle)


Biggest beauty spenders



South Korea


Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40000: SThree: As a Recruitment Consultant, y...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Quantitative Risk Manager

Up to £80000: Saxton Leigh: My client, a large commodities broker, is looking ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits