Wallets out, the wine's in

Big-spending visitors to Australia are changing the airport retail landscape, writes Lissa Christopher.

If you're an Australian traveller, you may well wander through the international terminals at Melbourne and Sydney airports wondering how on earth the high-end boutiques such as Armani, Burberry, and Bally stay afloat. For your information, they're doing rather well, some better than their "downtown" counterparts, apparently, but it's no thanks to you.

Generally speaking, outbound Australians, particularly those on discounted Asia-bound flights, "tend to buy the normal duty-free stuff, perhaps some liquor", the general manager of retail at Sydney Airport, Andrew Gardiner, says.

"The inbound customers from Asia, however, are buying luxury goods."

Asian, particularly Chinese, tourists are arriving at Australia's major international hubs in growing numbers, often on budget airlines, but they're far from budget minded once they're here. Their willingness to spend is proving a welcome boon for local airport retailers and a notable influence on what's being stocked on their shelves.

"China has this burgeoning middle class," Gardiner says. "And lots of Chinese people are now able to travel as Australians have been doing for many years. They have lots of money to spend and they see Australia as a great destination."

The retail manager at Melbourne Airport, Deborah Price, says Asian countries have a strong culture of gift giving. Visitors are also "brand conscious and like to buy authentic products [i.e. not knock-offs]."

Consequently, you'll see plenty of focus in airport retail on limited editions, premium brands - from clothing to watches - and exclusive Australian-made products.

Indeed, many Asian visitors want the antithesis of a bargain. Chinese travellers passing through Melbourne Airport's duty-free area are often keen to find "the most expensive products and the most popular ones", Price says. The airport, keen to support these travellers in their endeavours, has even been kind enough to introduce signage in Mandarin to guide them towards the wallet-draining items they seek.

"Duty Free, for example, has been bringing in bottles of Penfolds Grange which they've been selling for about $1000 and that has been very attractive to our Asian passengers," she says.

When it comes to more general passenger spending trends, Melbourne and Sydney airports say travellers are most likely to buy food and drink - be it from the usual fast-food chains, the middle ground or the newer, more salubrious dining options such as Melbourne's Cafe Vue and Sydney's Danks Street Depot. This is, at least in part, a consequence of the growth of budget airlines that do not offer a full in-flight meal service, Price says.

Indigenous Australian souvenir items aren't doing as well as they used to and that may be due to the shift away from European tourism towards Asian but within the category, boomerangs still beat didgeridoos, hands down.

Macadamia nuts top the selling list in the Australian Produce stores in both Melbourne and Sydney. Jerky, abalone, wine, nougat and honey are also popular.