Travel retail as an auction house of the future

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

‘Record Sale at Istanbul Airport: Unifree Duty Free sells Yamazaki 55 Year Old Whisky for 488,000 Euros’

The press release from German travel retailer Gebr. Heinemann, which has a long-running and highly successful joint venture in Turkey with Unifree, was a sure-fire winner, the media headlines practically pre-written.

We (first) and other media duly picked up on the story, which told the tale of the oldest single malt whisky in the history of the House of Suntory. A blend of three exceptional single malts from the 1960s, it features components distilled under the supervision of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii.

After releasing 100 bottles in 2020 in Japan through a lottery system, Suntory expanded on the release in 2021 with an ultra-limited batch of just 100 more bottles to the rest of the world, a few of them to travel retail partners, including Gebr. Heinemann.

In partnership with brand owner Beam Suntory, Unifree duly launched the ultra-premium whisky at Istanbul Airport in December with a suitably grand staging. So far so good. Not surprisingly, given the intense worldwide interest in collectable whiskies generally and Japanese whisky, in particular, the single bottle on offer was quickly sold.

But for me, the way that the whisky was sold was just as important a component of the story as the pricepoint.

Unifree and Gebr. Heinemann chose not to just place it within a high-profile promotion but to invite consumers to place bids via a blind auction. Eight people duly submitted valid offers, with a Chinese shopper ultimately winning out thanks to a whopping table-topping bid of €488,000.

Besides the story I wrote on Moodie Davitt Report.com, I also flagged it on LinkedIn, a post that has so far drawn 3,375 views and some interesting responses. “What a way to banish the Omicron blues. And to boost your average transaction value,” I wrote a little flippantly.

“Pity the manager facing into that number next year! Great story though,” joked Aer Rianta International Director Retail Ireland Paul Neeson. That prompted a more serious response from Gebr. Heinemann CEO Max Heinemann who noted, “These stories/transactions have to be seen separately Paul. Good stories are often worth more than many set budgets. And good stories we need these days.”

Paul agreed, replying: “One of the big stories not yet fully told from Covid is the improving spends from passengers and a real desire to trust and shop in the airports. Airports are an amazing place for brands to showcase products and the brand ambassadors and retail staff have become really skilled at telling the stories behind the product. I’m really positive about the future for our business.”

Gebr. Heinemann Chief Commercial Officer Dirk Schneider also posted the story, noting, “We set the bar very high when it comes to creating wow effects. Beam Suntory’s Yamazaki 55 Year Old Whisky made its global debut in 2021 and Gebr. Heinemann was one of the few places worldwide where whisky lovers could get their hands on this rarity.”

Which raises the question, could a rolling programme of auctions become a permanent part of the travel retail calendar in key locations? After all, as The Yamazaki 55 Year Old example shows, such a platform offers outstanding amplification for a brand as well as an emphatic affirmation of airport retail’s showcasing role.

I have always thought of the best airports (and Istanbul is high on that list) as magnificent amphitheatres that house not only people but emotions (sadness, excitement, anticipation, joy) and are therefore ripe for great experiences.

It might sound like a contradiction in terms but there’s actually no shortage of rare whisky if you look at the market as a whole (direct supply, collectors, resellers). While not many travellers will ever bid on such exclusive items, what a great way to engage with them and drive sales of more accessibly priced expressions.

Dubai Duty Free did exactly that when it devised the original luxury car raffles in the early 1980s, a pioneering initiative that created (and still does) consumer theatre and a whole new revenue stream.

The Yamazaki 55 Year Old auction at Istanbul Airport sends out similarly strong vibes. And it’s great business to boot. After all, €488,000 represents the equivalent of some 9,979 bottles of, say, Bowmore 10 Year Old single malt. Probably the numbers vary on a one-off bottle but let’s say for argument’s sake that the retailer gets a 50-60 percent gross margin (minus having to allocate a portion of other costs on that single bottle). That spells a big win for retailer and brand alike, a great talking point for airport passengers, and one very happy end consumer.

One of my golden rules as a writer and editor is to ban (in fact seek out, destroy and exterminate) any qualification of the word ‘unique’, something that many public relations executives simply love to do – truly unique, absolutely unique, completely unique, you get the picture. But if you’ll permit the strictly one-off, travel retail-exclusive assault on the English language, Unifree’s ‘Unique Duty Free Experience’ (above) just became uniquer.

“There aren’t many products that have the scarcity value to be given the auction treatment and there aren’t many airports with the right passenger profile to get this kind of result,” cautions Ivo Favotto, Founder & CEO of The Mercurius Group in Australia, a former Nuance Group and Lagardère Travel Retail senior executive, and the author of the acclaimed The Analyst column on The Moodie Davitt Report. “But if you can combine the right product with the right passenger mix, astounding results can be achieved.”

They can indeed. Could duty free stores become occasional or even year-round travel retail auction houses for fine wines & spirits, perhaps also other luxury items? Unifree, Gebr. Heinemann and Beam Suntory may have just answered that question.

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