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It will be fascinating to watch the progress of fledgling duty free business Le Bridge Travel Retail, which opened its first border store – one of five – in recent days, and which is poised to open at the country’s gateway, Chisnau Airport, shortly too.
Not only is the company Europe’s newest duty free retailer, but it is also attempting to introduce a luxury approach to a business – notably on the border – where none previously existed.
Take its first outlet, at Leuseni (pictured), just over 100km from Chisinau, on the Romanian frontier, which we visited last week, in the company of the Le Bridge team, plus leading suppliers from brands as diverse as Diageo, Philip Morris, JTI and Ferrero. There, Le Bridge has created a smart, upscale outlet, housing the world’s leading brands not only in liquor, tobacco and confectionery, but quality destination goods, cigars, fragrances, comsetics and – soon – fashion accessories too.
The glass storefront is an impressive facade, the shelving is high-class and the store finishes inside are executed to a high standard.
Aside from some issues of merchandising and product placement – an area set aside for gifting was too cluttered, and some key confectionery skus were facing directly onto the sun-splattered courtyard and overheating – there wasn’t much to fault the store.
The contrast with Le Bridge’s counterparts on the Romanian side of the border, which we also visited, could not be more stark (one of these is pictured below). There, we encountered ten different kiosks, all independently run, with what looked like the lightest of regulation. The product range in each was vastly different, the shelves were virtually falling from the walls at many and the pricing from one outlet to the next fluctuated wildly.
And yet here’s a key question: will any of this matter to the visitors crossing the border at Leuseni, mainly commercial traffic and some travellers heading for other parts of the EU via Romania?
With the proliferation of stores on the Romanian side, there is clearly demand, mainly for spirits and tobacco, and the low-rent outlets we saw only underline the low cost of setting up the business. The products we price-checked in Romania were also mostly cheaper than in Moldova, although the outlets were several hundred metres apart.
Le Bridge can certainly point to the integrity of its goods, to the service it offers and the environment it has created. And we wish it well with its efforts to create something different and something new in Moldova.
Yet there are still many markets where the price tag is the ultimate driver of a purchase – and one suspects it may be some time before the company’s rivals on the Romanian side of the border fold up their kiosks and leave the scene.