CANNES, France — Michele Norsa, chief executive officer of Salvatore Ferragamo, was among the keynote speakers at the opening conference of the Tax Free World Association’s meeting here on Sept. 19. During his speech, Norsa discussed what he adores about the travel-retail channel, in which Ferragamo has 150 doors, and his future hopes for airports. He also did not pull any punches in spelling out what he dislikes about the present scene.
Norsa called airports “the cathedrals of this century,” with exciting architecture. He lauded airports, as well, for being special places where people have time to make purchases.
“The new opportunity is travelers,” said Norsa. “Not the same travelers, but new travelers. The Asian travelers are really designing a new geography.”
Meanwhile, Norsa has a clear idea of how he’d like airports to be.
“If we want to grow and generate a bigger luxury business, the airport must become more exclusive — exclusive in terms of spaces, in terms of environment,” he said. Norsa disapproved of seeing people snoozing in their chairs, plus the sale of “cheap” souvenirs and food — especially the smell the latter gives off.
As for some of the fish served in Japanese airports, he said, “It is probably good for some people who are traveling in different ways. It’s good for me — I buy it for my dog. He’s a fan of it. It’s not really probably what you’d like to be sold next to a $15,000 bag or jewels or watches.
“If we want to grow even more this business of retailing, the airport must become at the same level of quality as Bond Street, or Madison Avenue or Faubourg Saint-Honoré,” said Norsa. “You must breathe this feeling of being in a very exclusive retail space. Visual merchandising must be the same, the fixtures, the quality of the stores must be similar to our top stores in the world.”
Further, he believes service from sales associates in airport retail locations must be ramped up.
Norsa took issue with U.S. airports, as well.
“I never understood why U.S. airports cannot be as nice as airports in the rest of the world,” he said. “I think that walking into an airport is a different experience in the U.S. It’s more like walking into a jailhouse penitentiary.”
He said entering a terminal in New York “you really feel fear when you meet the officials.” He further noted people can feel put upon in U.S. airport security check areas.
Norsa doesn’t find the desire to shop in U.S. airports to be on a par with that in European or Asian airports.
“I know that it’s different [tax-wise]. I know it’s probably not so advantageous. But I cannot believe a similar industry cannot be built in the United States,” said Norsa. “I think with all of these travelers it is a tremendous opportunity you have to explore.”
He finds great potential in the Chinese, who are traveling in greater numbers than ever before.
“They love brands and are driven by a luxury sentiment nobody else has in the world,” said Norsa. “They think that buying expensive is important and don’t care about where they sleep. They say ‘sleep cheap, shop expensive.’”
The conference moderator, Stephen Sackur, who is also the presenter of the BBC’s Hardtalk current affairs program, questioned Norsa’s take on airports of the future.
“I’m intrigued by this idea of your consumers becoming ever more exclusive,” said Sackur. “It seems to me the danger, particularly with your vision for the airports of the future, is that it’s sort of like a social, economic apartheid. You seem to want the budget travelers, those who actually enjoy fast food or a quick sleep in their chair, to be completely kept away from you and your luxury-end consumers. Is that what you really want in the airport of the future?”
Norsa said, “I think that the growing of the learning curve is very fast also for these people. So if you put them in the right environment they will improve dramatically.”
Sackur then suggested perhaps some people don’t dare enter Ferragamo’s stores since they don’t want to be tempted to buy goods out of their price range.
Norsa’s response — “In our stores you can also find products which sell for $200 or $300” — was met by laughter and applause from the audience.
Sackur said he was speaking as a BBC staffer, “where our salaries aren’t necessarily as high as I would like them to be.”
“You could buy a tie,” Norsa retorted.
The TFWA trade show’s halls were abuzz with reactions to the Ferragamo executive’s comments.
La Prairie Group president Patrick Rasquinet, said, “Obviously, I think some airports need to do some cleaning and make the shopping environment friendlier. And I think his point on the U.S. airport was correct. I think that’s not a surprise that travel retail in the U.S. is very small, I mean if you compare it to the other regions of the world. And I think it’s really a question of environment.
“But I would disagree with his point about the VIP experience and to get rid of the cheap food, and so on. I found it a little bit extreme,” continued Rasquinet, with a chuckle. “But I agree that the shopping experience must be improved, [although] I think there are already some airports with a very good environment, and I don’t think we need to get rid of everything which is cheap. I think they need probably to keep a very good balance.”
Speaking of Norsa’s statements, Eric Henry, chief operating officer of Shiseido’s Beauté Prestige International, said, “He should go in some of the local markets, in some of the domestic markets. Sometimes, it’s even worse than in the airports.”