New trade body the Association of International Retail (AIR), launched last week, announced its arrival with the release of an ‘action plan’ to combat the drop-off in Chinese shoppers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

London shoppers

Source: Willy Barton/ Shutterstock

Shop till you drop: the outbreak of coronavirus has led to a sharp fall in overseas visitor spending in the UK

However, its ambitions go beyond tackling the threat to retail posed by the virus.

AIR’s members include retailers, landlords, retail districts, hoteliers and tourism bodies, which have come together to support the long-term growth of the international retail sector. The association believes the international retail market could grow from its current value of around £6bn a year to £7.5bn.

“In forming AIR, we are bringing together businesses from across the international retail sector in a new and innovative way,” says Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company and chairman of AIR.

“Our opportunity is great: to grow our contribution to the economy and also our responsibility, as we work to ensure retailers recover economically from a slow start to 2020”.

Tyrrell says the association will lobby and work with government to encourage and implement change across the international retail sector.

Ensuring the UK is still appealing to overseas shoppers in the wake of Brexit is one priority for the association; in a statement last week it argued a thriving retail sector would be central to the success of a post-Brexit economy.

As part of this, it said it would make a case to government that immigration policy must ensure retailers could hire the staff they needed from around the world.

“In terms of Brexit and immigration, we need to make sure we do not damage the international retail sector,” Tyrrell says.

Another key focus will be to encourage Chinese visitors, who contribute significantly to the UK’s international retail market.

“[The association’s formation] came off the back of us lobbying for better Chinese visas,” explains Tyrrell. “Visas have been quite restrictive in terms of China’s accessibility to the UK compared with the rest of Europe.”

The UK Chinese Visa Alliance, which has been incorporated into AIR, has helped to increase the number of visas issued in China by more than 150% since it launched in 2012.

A different focus

“We see a lot of Chinese shoppers investing in retail around the country, but hotels and airlines also benefit from international retail. That is why AIR is different from the BRC or the BPF – it is focused on a specific element of the retail community.”

In this vein, AIR also wants retailers to have more Mandarin speakers on site and to implement new transaction technology at checkouts. It believes offering different payment methods will allow Chinese shoppers to buy more goods in UK stores, without the usual credit card restrictions.

Tyrrell says a survey of West End retailers and hoteliers last year found that only 45% were using Chinese mobile payment platforms such as UnionPay, WeChat and Alipay.

“Having basic payment platforms that respond to different international markets, particularly Chinese visitors, is high value to us,” says Tyrrell. “We want to fix this in the short term and we have a target to get to 50% in 12 months.”

While Chinese shopper footfall continues to plummet in the short term, AIR looks ready to drive up volumes once the UK has the coronavirus all-clear. As for how things will shape up post-Brexit? Time will tell.