London’s Heathrow airport, duty-free shop sorry over ‘Chinese discrimination’ controversy

Chinese customers at a World Duty Free store had to spend over US$1,300 to earn discount coupons, while their counterparts from other countries needed to buy as little as US$110 to qualify

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 11:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 8:54pm

London’s Heathrow airport and travel retail chain World Duty Free have apologised for a duty-free store’s overcharging of tourists from China for store discount vouchers.

The apologies came this week after a part-time salesman at a World Duty Free shop at Heathrow revealed in a Chinese social media post on Sunday that Chinese customers had to spend more than £1,000 (US$1,383) to acquire vouchers entitling them to 20 per cent discounts on store items.

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Their counterparts from other countries could obtain the vouchers with purchases of as little as £79, according to the post on Chinese microblogging site Weibo.

In a statement to the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, World Duty Free, which runs more than 500 stores in 20 countries, said it had investigated the inequity in its voucher programme and taken “urgent steps to correct the implementation of this promotion”.

“As a global company we are committed to treating all our customers with respect and in a consistent and fair way,” it said.

“We would like to offer our sincere apologies to our customers who were in any way made to feel this was not the case.

“We have comprehensively re-briefed our staff in our stores to ensure that the promotion is clear. This offer applies regardless of the destination customers are flying to.”

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Heathrow airport also apologised over the matter.

“We find this [practice] unacceptable,” Delia Williams, a spokeswoman for the world’s second-busiest airport, said on Monday.

“We are currently working with our commercial partner to understand how this happened and ensure it does not happen again.”

In a statement on its Weibo account, the airport said: “We sincerely apologise for issues surrounding a voucher scheme provided by one of our partners.”

The part-time salesman’s post revealing the inequitable practice sent China’s social media outlets into overdrive over the weekend, attracting more than 14,800 comments and 65,300 “likes”.

In his Weibo post, the salesman, who is Chinese, said he discovered the unbalanced voucher pricing system as a Chinese customer was paying her bill.

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The cashier had asked the customer to spend more than £1,000 for a voucher, simply because [the buyer] was Chinese, wrote the man, who did not disclose his name in the post.

When the salesman confronted the store manager about the minimum, a row broke out.

The shop manager pulled the salesman aside, and acknowledged the requirements were “a little bit unfair”, according to the post.

The salesman wrote that a British colleague told him later that other nationalities had only needed to spend £79 to qualify for the vouchers.

The controversy came just days before some 6.5 million Chinese were expected to travel overseas during the seven-day Lunar New Year holiday, according to Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency.

Travel-related businesses globally are salivating at the opportunity to benefit from the buying power of tourists from China.

In 2016, Chinese tourists spent a record US$261 billion on overseas trips, up 12 per cent from the year before, according to figures from the World Tourism Organisation, a United Nations tourism-promotion agency.

One other World Duty Free store at Heathrow airport was ensnared in the voucher-price controversy.

Traveller Shirley Xie said on Twitter that she confronted the store’s manager about having to spend an exorbitant amount for a coupon on Sunday afternoon. But he “became aggressive and couldn’t give any reasonable explanation”, Xie wrote.

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“Just want to let Heathrow and World Duty Free know that as [members of a group with some of the world’s] biggest purchasing power, we Chinese consumers need to be treated with respect.

“And we will never [return] if our rights have been violated.”

World Duty Free is a unit of Switzerland’s Dufry, a retail company engaged in the travel retail sector.

During the seven-day Lunar New Year’s holiday break, Thailand, Japan and Singapore are expected to be the top three destinations for Chinese tourists, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, the United States, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia and Cambodia, according to Ctrip.