FRANKFURT (Reuters) - In the gleaming open spaces of a duty free store at Frankfurt airport, 32 year old Benny from China is ticking off items on his shopping list with the aid of the airport’s new Mandarin-speaking personal shopper, Wasim Hussein.
“It’s a great service,” Benny, a student who was in Germany visiting friends, said in Chinese, displaying a shopping list on his iPhone that includes Estee Lauder face creams at 50 euros apiece as presents for his wife and friends.
Frankfurt airport’s new personal shopper service is just one example of how leisure and travel firms in crisis-stricken Europe are trying to tap the seemingly inexhaustible spending power of Chinese tourists.
The Chinese spent $73 billion on overseas travel in 2011, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, up 32 percent on 2010, and with growth running at a similar rate they could overtake Germans as the world’s biggest spenders on foreign travel this year.
In the third quarter alone, tax-free shopping by Chinese citizens leapt 58 percent, data from tourist shopping specialist Global Blue show, and in August they accounted for almost 30 percent of all global tax-free sales.
Many are coming to Europe, with Chinese travellers topping the tax-free shopping leaderboard in cities like London, Paris and Frankfurt, and even if China’s rapid pace of economic growth starts to moderate, there are signs that trend will continue.
“As yet, less than 2 percent of China’s population has travelled beyond Greater China, so the potential for continuing growth remains vast, even if China’s economy does slow in the coming years,” Global Blue said.
VisitBritain predicts the amount of money spent by Chinese tourists in Britain each year will jump 157 percent to 618 million pounds by 2020 from 240 million in 2011.
“Seen from a Chinese tour bus, the continent of Europe is not so much an ancient collection of cities and nations as a glittering emporium stocked with brands,” it said in a recent strategy document.
While catering for foreign travellers can be expensive, the rewards of attracting Chinese shoppers into your stores are huge. The Chinese Tourism Academy estimates Chinese travellers spend on average around $1,000 on shopping when abroad.
This willingness to spend is driven by a culture of gift giving and old wisdom that a person away from home should return with a souvenir, said Xu Jing, Asia Pacific regional director at the UN World Tourism Organization.
“When travellers from China go to Europe, this is a lifetime trip and they go out of their way to buy, even if it’s out of their budget,” he said, explaining that a box of chocolates just doesn’t suffice as a gift and could even cause offence.
The 1 million travellers from China who come each year through Frankfurt airport, Europe’s third largest, now make up the biggest customer base for the Heinemann duty free store there and numbers are growing, said one worker.
“They love Chanel perfume. Some buy 10, 15 bottles at once,” she said, declining to give her name due to company policy.
The idea of a dedicated advice service for Chinese customers was proposed by employees at the airport’s operator, Fraport, after cultural barriers became evident among the rows of expensive European lotions and potions.
“There was a huge language barrier and they often got lost,” said Fraport customer service manager Thomas Kirner.
Enter Wasim, whose father is Pakistani and mother German, and who was drawn to Chinese culture and language through a love of Kung Fu.
“You need a lot of patience - to be flexible, like bamboo,” said 43-year old Wasim of his job, in which he can also offer to speak French and English along with German and Mandarin.
News of Wasim’s personal shopping service is spreading fast. On arrival in Frankfurt, many travellers from China simply ask for “Mr Airport.” (Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Mark Potter)