APEX in Profile: Agnès Debains

Agnès Debains, Co-Founder, airfree

Image: Agnès Debains

Agnès Debains
Co-Founder
airfree

Agnès is an advocate for the digitalization of the duty-free and travel service industries, and their roles in value creation for airlines and passengers. Before co-founding airfree, Agnès worked as a digital and e-commerce director for French cosmetics brands.

Location: CDG
Now listening to: Magic System’s “Magic in the Air” (the World Cup French fans’ song)
Favorite aircraft: A380
Brand of suitcase: Lipault
Seatback or PED? PED

What’s wrong with the current in-flight duty-free business model, and what does airfree aim to do differently?
The duty-free shopping experience in flight isn’t adapted to the level expected by consumers. Ground duty-free retailers are becoming luxury malls, whereas in flight, passengers are still reading through the duty-free magazine that’s in the seat pocket. That experience is disappointing and can be improved. 

From an airline perspective, there are lots of constraints: complicated logistics, transportation costs for the often useless weight of products on heavy trolleys and painful tasks for the cabin crew. Airfree has introduced Marketplace of the Sky, making airport retailers’ products available digitally in the air, in an aim to solve a lot of these issues.

What makes the in-flight marketplace particularly challenging?
The challenge to efficiently operate e-commerce on board is the quality and cost of connectivity on most aircraft today. Despite the huge progress made year over year in the satellite bandwidth available for passengers, it remains limited compared to what customers are used to on the ground, making navigation on a regular website very fussy. That’s why airfree has developed a solution, based on the minimal and smart use of bandwidth, specifically adapted for in-flight browsing.

“The duty-free industry today looks like the high-end retail market from more than  10 years ago.”

Describe a career-defining moment.
When I decided to quit my job and embark on the startup adventure! After 12 years in marketing and digital, I thought it was a good moment for a change, with enough experience to bring real added value to my own project. So when I had the opportunity to partner with Valéry [Méary], with his business development background, and Étienne [de Verdelhan], our technical expert, to create airfree, I didn’t hesitate.

You used to work for L’Occitane en Provence. What lessons did you bring from your experience there that were applied to the airline passenger experience industry?
The duty-free industry today looks like the high-end retail market from more than 10 years ago. Sales are almost exclusively brick and mortar; retailers realize the opportunity to boost sales via digital but don’t know how. We had a lot of the same issues at L’Occitane, and decided to create a very aggressive omnichannel strategy. Turns out that was the right decision, as e-commerce is now one of its key pillars of growth. The same scheme could apply to travel retail – and we are now seeing big duty-free players ready to move in that direction.

Do you have a go-to duty-free item that you tend to buy? What’s the last duty-free product you purchased in flight?
I like to buy my cosmetics and fragrances in duty-free – particularly because my favorite fragrance is not sold on the French market anymore. Every time I find it in duty-free abroad I stock up. Unfortunately, with the limited offers and frequent inventory issues in flight, I rarely find interesting items to purchase.

“APEX in Profile: Agnès Debains” was originally published in the 8.4 August/September issue of APEX Experience magazine.