UK. World Duty Free this evening issued an apology following a furious consumer backlash against an allegedly “discriminatory” promotion  at Heathrow Airport, which required Chinese travellers to spend more than other nationalities to qualify for a discount.

The matter quickly turned into a public relations crisis for the Dufry-owned retailer, after its initial response (see below) seemed to add fuel to the fire. The incident has underlined the immense, and immediate, influence of social media on the travel retail channel.

In the promotion at World Duty Free’s Terminal 2 store, Chinese travellers needed to spend a minimum of £1,000 (US$1,381) to receive a -20% discount voucher. But other shoppers were only required to spend as little as £79 (US$110) to receive the same offer.

Weibo user @Renjiannaipao, who says he was working as a salesman at the World Duty Free shop, included details and pictures of the anomaly on his blog. Users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo were outraged after the policy, widely dubbed as “racist”, was revealed on the post. The revelations were shared over 75,000 times on Weibo over the following day, and exceeded 100,000 WeChat views.

World Duty Free issued a full apology tonight for the offence caused

World Duty Free earlier issued a statement on Chinese social media platform Weibo saying it had corrected the “issue” with the VIP voucher scheme. But that response was slammed by Chinese consumers, who called instead for a full apology. World Duty Free duly issued a sincere apology this evening London time.

In a statement posted on Weibo, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (in Chinese) tonight London time, World Duty Free said: “As a global company we are committed to treating all our customers with respect and in a consistent and fair way.

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

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A promotional disaster, a public relations fiasco and a lesson learned
The last thing the international duty free industry can afford is to add further encouragement to Chinese consumers to not shop abroad. Click to read more from The Moodie Blog

“The VIP programme is designed to reward customers – on top of our normal promotions – at certain points of the year by offering an attractive incentive on a second purchase. The implementation of this promotion has been confusing which we sincerely regret.

“After close self-examination and having made further investigations, we have taken urgent steps to correct the implementation of this promotion going forward. 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.

“Once again, we would like to take this opportunity to apologise profusely to all our valued customers.”

Here, for our many Chinese readers, is the statement in Chinese. 对于本次事件让广大消费者和中国民众对本公司产生愤慨和怀疑的情绪,我们表示诚挚的歉意。World Duty Free作为一个跨国公司,一直以来,我们秉承平等和尊重的态度对待每一位顾客。

经过深刻地自我审视和进一步的调查后,我们立刻对于促销中存在的问题予以处理。

VIP贵宾优惠劵在每年特定时间段推出,回馈已经消费的顾客。它也可用于下一次购物和其他的日常促销优惠叠加使用。我们对此项促销在执行中产生的误解深表歉意。该促销条款是适用于飞往任何目的地的乘客,这已被重新解释和强调给店内的所有工作人员,以保证未来不会有同样的事件发生。

我们希望能借此机会,再次向我们所珍视的广大消费者和中国民众表达我们万分的歉意!

World Duty Free had earlier issued a statement on its Weibo account stating the issue had been corrected. But its choice of words only inflamed a rapidly escalating  furore.

The initial statement read: “We are grateful for the comments shared on social media today regarding our VIP voucher scheme. We have investigated this straight away and have identified an issue which we have corrected with immediate effect. The program applies regardless of the destination customers are flying to. Customer satisfaction remains our highest priority.”

Influential Chinese media title Global Times majored on the story today, which was also trending on state-owned People’s Daily (see below)

Call for an apology – duly made

World Duty Free will be hoping that it has drawn a line under the situation tonight. It has certainly, and rightly, endeavoured to.

The retailer’s initial statement prompted even angrier reaction from Chinese social media users, who accused World Duty Free of racism and discriminatory policies.

Victoria Yixiao Hwang, a London-based Investment Advisor at Huaan Fund Management Co, blasted both the promotion and World Duty Free’s subsequent statement on the retailer’s Facebook page (which is awash with angry reaction). “Customer satisfaction remains our highest priority. I mean, are you being serious? Have you got no shame?! ” she wrote. “This statement says literally nothing! No clear explanation of what’s the detail of this programme, such as how much exactly should a customer spend to receive the voucher! And most importantly, YOU DIDN’T APOLOGISE!”

Another Chinese consumer, Hanxin Huang, wrote: “Who is responsible for the regulation that Chinese people need to spend more than 1,000 pounds to receive the 20% off voucher? What is the punishment? Where is the public apology?” Scores of other Chinese declared their outrage on World Duty Free’s Facebook page and on other social media platforms.

The BBC’s report noted that many Weibo and Facebook users had said they felt disrespected because of their ethnicity

Heathrow Airport says sorry

Heathrow Airport said in a statement the offer was “unacceptable”,  adding that it was working with World Duty Free on the matter.

“We have been made aware of this offer, which we find unacceptable,” the statement read. “We are currently working with our commercial partner to understand how this happened and ensure it does not happen again.”

The airport company did, however, issue an apology in Chinese on Weibo, saying: “London Heathrow Airport sincerely apologises for the controversy and sentiment raised by a partner’s coupon promotion. Our partners have now identified and corrected the problem immediately. This event offers the same benefits for travellers to all destinations. We are very grateful for your valuable suggestions and feedback. We promise to you that providing satisfactory service to our customers will always be the most important mission of Heathrow and all our partners.”

Heathrow Airport apologises in Chinese (above) on its Weibo platform (the English translation is below)

Chinese publication People’s Daily demanded World Duty Free issue an apology [since issued -Ed] for the “discriminatory scheme”.

“Though World Duty Free issued an ‘official statement’ it has yet to issue a sincere apology to the Chinese people, triggering even more of a backlash on social media,” it said earlier today.

Chinese publication People’s Daily said World Duty Free should apologise for the scheme

World Duty Free’s Facebook page has attracted a flurry of 1-star reviews, such as those below