A flying visit to Neutral’s heartland

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Peter Dowling

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The fog lifts and our Piper Seneca taxis to the end of the runway. Five minutes later we are through the clouds and leaving Montevideo behind.

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As the guest of Neutral I am on the 90-minute shuttle to the Uruguay-Brazil border to witness one of the major transformations in contemporary travel retail.

Along this frontier, new locations, renovations and major broadening of brand representation are underway. Neutral’s growth since JH Partners and Enrique Urioste took over in May 2011 is indicative – going from 6,000sq m to 18,000sq m of retail space by year-end.

Today’s destination is Rio Branco, a small border town that is doing a big business with Brazilians travelling from cities like Pelotas and Porto Alegre to the town of Jaguarao, and across the Baron de Maua bridge into a duty free shopping haven.

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My travelling companions have a busy day ahead. Neutral’s Project Director Gabriel Gurmendez, Construction Manager Leonardo Nuñez and esteemed retail architect Monica Ariaudo of Buenos Aires-based Estudio Ariaudo are in the closing stages of the overhaul and extension of the Rio Branco store. That’s not to mention the new stores being built in Bella Unión and Rivera, renovation at Aceguá, expansion at Artigas and more.

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At work in Neutral’s extension, from left: Monica Ariaudo, Gabriel Gurmendez, Juan Pablo Sanguinetti (electrical works manager) and Leonardo Nuñez

The importance of duty free to these otherwise isolated rural communities is self-evident. Rio Branco Aerodrome is a grass strip that serves aerial-topdressing planes mostly. But once we have driven the short distance into town past rice fields and grain silos, we arrive at a small downtown where retail is pumping.

The Neutral store is in a prime location on Rio Branco’s main avenue, in an elegant brick building that was once a cinema. When the extension opens next week it will add exclusive brands including GAP and Columbia, with a large Nike store-in-store and extended electronics area. And in the next month Neutral’s own restaurant, El Noble, will start providing some of the quick dining options that Rio Branco lacks.

A police station sat adjacent to the existing store and as the good officers didn’t want to relocate, the 750sq m extension has been built around it. At least security will not be a problem.

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No need to phone for the police …

Being a weekday the trade is slow by border standards but I detect no shortage of Brazilian customers stocking their trolleys with everything from fragrances to child car seats. “You should see it on the weekend,” a salesperson tells me.

Unfortunately this is only a flying visit, but with the way business is developing along this border, The Moodie Report will be staying close to this story.

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The Moodie Report’s Peter Dowling at Rio Branco Aerodrome with Gabriel Gurmendez, Monica Ariaudo and Leonardo Nuñez

A spotlight on Neutral’s buoyant border store business will feature in The Moodie Report Latin America Special Edition 2013, to be published in June.

 

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