The exposure of a discriminatory duty-free policy at Heathrow Airport comes at the wrong time for luxury retailers, with nearly 6.5 million Chinese expected to travel overseas during the imminent Lunar New Year holiday.
On February 11, a part-time salesman at one of the airport's duty-free stores, who goes by Renjiannaipao on Weibo, warned Chinese consumers about a policy that requires Chinese shoppers to spend £1,000 pounds nearly 13 times as much as the £79 other nationalities have to receive the same 20 percent VIP discount.
“It's clear that they're treating Chinese as monkeys, even though Chinese are the main consumers here,” Renjiannaipao wrote.
Heathrow Airport's duty-free shops are owned by World Duty Free S.p.A., which runs more than 500 stores in 20 countries.
Renjiannaipao’s Weibo post quickly spread online. As of February 13, the post generated more than 11.56 million page views, 16,381 comments, and 87,597 reposts. The news angered netizens in China, with many saying they would avoid the store ahead of the Chinese New Year Holiday. Ironically, it was just last month that British Prime Minister Theresa May sent a warm invitation to Chinese tourists.
Chinese travelers accounted for a quarter of Heathrow’s duty-free sales in 2015, though they made up only one percent of passengers that year, according to travel website Mafengwo.
According to New Frontier Economic research, direct flights from Heathrow to China contribute 510 million pounds per year to the UK economy and create 14,550 jobs. And Chinese passengers who take those direct flights, arriving at terminals T2 and T5, are among the biggest spenders on duty-free items.
Nina Wang, who worked as a salesperson in a Heathrow duty-free store from 2015 to 2016, said the practice has existed for years. It was an unspoken rule that all sales associates in her terminal were expected to follow.
“But I rarely applied it to Chinese customers,” she said, “which got me into trouble with my manager many times.” She suggested that the different discount is a deliberate policy adopted at a management level.
When we questioned whether the discriminatory policy was company-wide, Karen Sharpes, PR manager at Dufry Group, the parent company of World Duty Free, told us that they were unable to comment beyond what's included in their public statements.
World Duty Free have issued two such statements. The first was published on February 12 via Weibo, less than 24 hours after Renjiannaipao posted his comments online.
Renjiannaipao questioned how genuine the statement was, saying that the program did apply to travelers headed to specific destinations. In fact, he said, his store was often able to meet its daily sales targets by targeting China Airlines flights CA937 and CA857 alone.
The next day, on February 13, World Duty Free released a second statement on Weibo, WeChat, Instagram and Twitter.
Many Weibo users were unimpressed. “-Wdy-Yi Ayang” noted that, "There is no mention of China or Chinese people.”
“Brother Yi Has a lot to say” said, “First, you didn’t clarify the mistake — it’s a 1,000 spending limit that applies only to Chinese people. Second, you didn’t point out how you are going to compensate us for our losses.”
The fallout continues, with many Chinese travelers posting receipts of what discounts they did receive, if any, trying to discern a clear and consistent policy.
Yiling Pan contributed reporting for this article.