One of the oldest luggage retailers in India, Witco, has shuttered after 70 years. The retailer, which used to sell household names such as Samsonite and American Tourister across its 11 stores, was unable to recover from India’s first lockdown in March of 2020.
Luxury luggage brands were vulnerable, too. Tumi’s sales were down 60 per cent by the year’s end. Even Rimowa faced uncertainties, as stores in key markets like China and Hong Kong had limited operations amid Covid-19 restrictions.
A statement by a company representative of vintage-style luggage supplier SteamLine Luggage said the brand’s pre-pandemic sales comprised 70 per cent suitcases and 30 per cent handheld bags. However, the ratio had flipped from March to November 2020, as the brand shifted focus to handheld bags and overnight luggage.
A cautious comeback begins
Delta Airlines’ June quarter FY21 profit of US$652 million, its first after five quarters of losses, signalled hope for recovery throughout the entire travel sector, including luggage and accessory brands.
In Singapore, sales at travel-specialised retailers like The Travel Store and Winter Time have already increased by 10-15 per cent following the recent announcement of quarantine-free travel lanes for vaccinated travellers returning from Australia, Switzerland, and a handful of neighboring Asian countries.
Winter Time marketing manager Rebecca Poon said along with luggage, customers are stocking up on winter coats as locations with cold weather begin to accept Singaporean tourists. Winter Time anticipates sales to rise another 15-20 per cent before the year ends, especially if more countries are added to Singapore’s quarantine-free travel scheme.
Despite the uplift, Poon remains cautious, as sales are still far from pre-pandemic levels. “We need to give very aggressive promotions to attract sales. So even though sales are coming in, the margin is not as good as previous times,” she said. Many Asian luggage retailers with online channels hope the upcoming discounts for ‘11.11’ – Singles’ Day – will provide a boost.
But growing concerns of an even more dangerous strain of the Covid-19 virus emerging may also deter Singaporeans from travelling. “I think most Singaporeans are still very conservative, they will want to monitor and see…So maybe next year (sales) will improve more,” said Joyce Lim, director of wholesaler and retailer at The Travel Store.
Online store Luggage Outlet’s owner, Tan Wei Li, added “based on the purchase patterns, we have yet to see a clear return of leisure travellers”.
A pivot to domestic travel and day trips
With luggage sales no longer tied to air travel, most brands had to adapt to their customers’ new needs. When domestic travel was permitted again after the first wave of lockdowns, many people began travelling locally and taking short trips over the weekend. In response, Away marketed its duffles, backpacks, and weekenders to appeal to short-term travellers.
Similarly, travel, and lifestyle brand Beis experienced a jump in demand for the brand’s smaller bags and accessories in the lead up to summer last year. Sales of its popular weekender bag increased by four times and its tote sales doubled, compared with 2019.
To keep up with demand, the brand also ramped up its production for the Christmas holiday travel season, introducing a wider range of bag sizes to accommodate people’s new travelling styles. Beis was one of the lucky few companies to experience an upturn during the pandemic; revenue had jumped 159 per cent by the end of 2020.
Backed by French conglomerate LVMH, Rimowa launched non-luggage products for the first time in its 122-year history last year. The brand transferred its signature design codes and materials over to a new accessory line made up of iPhone cases, sunglasses, and handbags. Coming at a lower price point, the new accessory line helped widen Rimowa’s customer accessibility. “People who wanted a piece of Rimowa had something they could buy,” said Josh Udashkin, general manager of Rimowa North America.
Brand appeal over function
While luggage companies are typically categorised as functional products rather than brands, Away and Rimowa spent the bulk of this year building up their brand appeal and reputation.
Part of Rimowa’s strategy was a closer association with fashion. Late last year, the brand unveiled collaborations with Fendi, Supreme, and designer Virgil Abloh. Rimowa’s dabble with streetwear brands not only helped increase brand awareness but also solidified its luggage as a certified ‘hypebeast’ (male influencer) item, costing an average of US$1,000. Many of these exclusive products ended up in the hands of Asian consumers, whether through direct sales or resellers.
“We’ve found a strong appreciation in our Eastern markets for exclusivity, seasonal products, limited editions, and personalisation,” said Alexandre Arnault, board member and former CEO of Rimowa. “These are qualities we cultivate throughout our product offerings, no matter the location, but they can be particularly valued by clientele who skew a bit younger in our Asian markets.”
Away is not new to collaborations, but hopes its latest partnership, with emerging designers Sandy Liang, Tia Adeola and Ji Won Choi, will appeal to more fashion-forward consumers. The brand has collaborated with the likes of Serena Williams and high-end audio brand Master & Dynamic, but this exclusive capsule collection with the emerging designers is its first foray into fashion.
The plan is to make these collaborative capsule collections annually, allowing artists with a diverse range of backgrounds and aesthetics to reimagine Away’s core product range.
Future of the travel industry
Despite travel making a modest but steady comeback, the outlook for this category is far from certain. Although leisure travel will definitely rise in the coming months, digitisation has made other forms of travel less relevant. The possibility of hosting mass conference calls and livestreams could make in-person events less necessary. Business trips could also be replaced with a simple Zoom call, allowing employers to save on cost and hours.
On the flipside, the shift to remote work has also given workers a new sense of mobility, with the ability to work from anywhere in the world. A common trend during lockdown was city-dwellers moving out to the suburbs or countryside to have more space. As leisure travel picks up, people may embark on long-haul travel while continuing to work remotely.
For now, most luggage companies are continuing to bet on domestic travel. In China, where local tourism is now the focus, opened borders between the mainland, Macau, and Hong Kong have already provided new growth opportunities for brands. Rimowa opened six new stores in China this year and four in Korea, in addition to one each in Thailand and Taiwan. Asia is a key market for Rimowa, and the brand is confident the region will lead the travel shopping rebound, especially as Chinese consumers are now more willing to splurge domestically.