With holidays and business travel on hold indefinitely, luggage sales have plummeted. For young, innovative companies such as Away, it could be fatal. Samuel Ballard reports

It may be the most unsurprising thing you read today, but UK retail sales dropped to an historic low last month, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The fall, of 5.1 per cent, is the highest since the metrics were first recorded in 1996.

However, as bleak as that looks, the real picture is worse than the headline figure infers – many shops didn’t close until the 23 March, while the percentage also includes sales at food stores, which are up 10.4 per cent. With no sign of the lockdown changing any time soon, chances are that things are going to get worse before they get better.

What is bad for clothing – which fell by a massive 35 per cent – is worse for goods associated with travel. The ONS doesn’t break down the numbers down any further but, according to a post on Medium by the founders of Away, trendy suitcase brand, sales have fallen by 90 per cent in the last few weeks.

In a joint statement Jen Rubio and Steph Korey wrote: “We are a travel brand, and the coronavirus pandemic has brought travel to a standstill. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen sales of our products decrease by more than 90 per cent. It is not only hard to do business during a global pandemic – for us, it is nearly impossible to continue our mission of transforming travel when travel has come to a halt.”

The pair revealed that they have laid off 10 per cent of their workforce, furloughed half, frozen their own salaries and reduced the wages of the senior leadership team. As a long-time fan of Away (we have have reviewed their luggage in the past), Globetrender hopes that the Away team will find a way to pull through.

The issues aren’t just affecting relative newcomers in the luggage industry (Away launched in 2015). Samsonite, the world’s largest maker of branded luggage, had already stretched itself after the costly (US$1.8 billion) acquisition of Tumi in 2016, and it is now facing a huge decrease in demand for its products.

The company has had its status lowered to “junk” by S&P Global Ratings while Moody’s, another ratings agency, lowered theirs to negative in April. An ominous sign.

Samsonite owns 1,300 of its own stores, a huge overhead during the lockdown, while 60 per cent of its business comes out of Asia, one of the regions that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. However, given that countries like Vietnam are talking about lifting sanctions, Samsonite’s presence in Asia could help it in the short-term.

Samsonite hasn’t released a sales update since the crisis took hold but in 2019 it revealed that debts were three times its revenues. In in the first half of last year, sales were down 5 per cent, with profits down 38 per cent. Given the disruption to its supply chain – with factories being shuttered in China – those figures are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Some brands are pivoting to stay alive. Samsara Luggage recently designed “Essentials by Samsara” safety kits (containing an N95 mask, hand sanitising gel, disinfectant pads and three pairs of disposable gloves) to offer an “enhanced layer of safety for essential workers currently commuting and as a necessary solution for travellers once it is safe to travel again”.

Atara Dzikowski, co-founder and CEO of Samsara Luggage, says: “Samsara will continue to bring value to its customers by providing products that show we can reshape our approach to adapt to the changing times.”

Canadian travel and lifestyle brand Monos also made a quick pivot, developing the CleanPod, a hand-held rechargeable, chemical-free, sanitising device that uses ultraviolet UVC light to disinfect surfaces and personal items when on the road.

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