Thursday, 12 December 2013

Obsession with Concession (Agreements)

Legal update seminars aside, airports are probably the most exciting places in the world! And what's the number one thing to do in that exciting place? It's got to be duty free shopping. Nothing is more thrilling than purchasing your seventh pair of overpriced sunglasses for that long-awaited stag weekend in Tallinn. You know you don't need them, but it's duty free! You have to spend to save! Well, millions of other poor souls think just like us, which is why it's big business for retailers. So big, in fact, that a retailer will enter into a particularly onerous agreement with an airport just to have a concession there.

You will often find that when a retailer enters into a concession agreement with an airport, or a huge shopping centre, it pretty much has to agree to their standard terms and the retailer will have very little bargaining power. Although this can be frustrating for the lawyer trying to negotiate on their behalf, there is often very little that can be done, the retailer has to either take it or leave it.

A concession agreement is essentially a licence, rather than a lease, there is no landlord and tenant relationship (and so any statute that is designed to protect a tenant will probably not apply) and the 'concessionaire' has no right on the land. You are simply given the right to trade on someone else's property.

I was recently asked to interpret some clauses in a three-year concession agreement that our client had entered into with an airport. The client is a very well-known clothing brand. Whilst the clauses mainly related to VAT (I can sense you're dangerously close to the edge of your seat!) the agreement as a whole was really interesting.

I was amazed to see how onerous it was. For example, not only was the client obliged to pay an initial fee for entering into the agreement, but the airport also takes approximately 25% from their sales revenue. This percentage remains the same for all three years, but the minimum amount that the airport was guaranteed would increase, from £229,000 in year 1 to £270,000 in year 3.

On top of the prescribed trading week and minimum trading hours; the client was required to keep very detailed sales and footfall data which the airport had the right to inspect on demand. They are  obliged to show the duty free price of its merchandise and compare it to the high street price, clearly stating the amount that customers save; at its own cost and they had to operate the 'Shop and Drop' scheme (where your shopping mysteriously and beautifully appears at your departure gate waiting for you to collect it).

It doesn't stop there, as the client has to implement any of the airport's points-based loyalty schemes, then should the airport ever create a Facebook page, they are contractually obliged to 'like' it moreover if the airport ever create a Twitter account, they had to 'follow' it (the latter two are real, by the way). I could go on, but you get the gist.

Whether you're a Paralegal, Trainee, Solicitor or Partner acting on behalf of a business, it's essential to understand the commercial realities that clients face. Our client knew it had very little bargaining power but it relied on its own calculations and projected sales to decide whether such a restrictive agreement would be cost-effective.

It was only when I was asked to work on this concession agreement that I fully realised how this was one of the less obvious examples of a really interesting legal relationship coupled with sound commercial judgement. From a lawyer's point of view, it also shows how important it is not to lose sight of the client's commercial objectives.

When every part of your legal brain wants to shout "NO! Don't sign, it's a terrible contract" you have to respect that ultimately, it is the client's decision. Our role is to highlight the terms of the contract and ensure the client is fully informed before deciding whether to enter into it.

So the next time you're in the departure lounge coating yourself with perfume testers, it may be worth considering what's happening in the background. There's usually a legal and commercial reason for everything.   

Posted bRajiv Malhotratrainee in the property practice.

Rajiv Malhotra -       

Rajiv graduated with LLB (Hons) from the University of Birmingham in 2007, before completing the Legal Practice Certificate at BPP Law School in London. After acting as a Legal Assistant with a large Watford firm, Rajiv joined B P Collins in April 2012 as a paralegal before beginning his training contract in September 2013.