Fairn & Swanson closes after 70 years in business

One of the pioneering companies in the U.S. duty free industry closed its doors for good last week, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After seven decades in business, California-based Fairn & Swanson – parent company of Baja Duty Free –  filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition on June 2, 2020 in the California Northern Bankruptcy Court (Oakland). The petition calls for liquidation of the company, so there is no intent to reorganize.

Fairn & Swanson founder Woflgang Uhlig began supplying duty free products to marine vessels visiting the Port of San Francisco in 1949.

In what should have been the 30th anniversary year of Baja Duty Free, the travel retailer and parent company Fairn & Swanson have closed their doors for good.

Uhlig opened the first Baja Duty Free store in 1989. The year 2020 had been planned as a year-long celebration of the retailer’s 30th anniversary. As of the time of the filing, F&S was operating six Baja Duty Free border stores, three in California and three in Texas. Baja Duty Free was able to celebrate the anniversary for one month only before COVID-19 hit.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Baja Duty Free had represented 45% of the overall F&S business, with the rest generated by ship chandelling and distribution activities. Fairn & Swanson had supplied products to a number of independent duty free stores along the border, as well as some overseas bases. Supplying cruise ships had been one of its major channels.

Nicole Uhlig, daughter of Wolfgang and the second generation to run the company, tells TMI:

“[Closing] is so sad for all of us at F&S, Baja and the duty free industry partners that are affected. The times have changed and our family company couldn’t make it through 2020 COVID-19.

“Wolfgang and his legacy will never be forgotten in the duty free industry,” she said.

Ari Bussel, of Saybrex International, Inc., another California-based travel retail supplier, also commented on what a difficult decision the bankruptcy must have been:

 “It is a very sad moment for the industry. This is a liquidation of a powerhouse in the industry, a known and most respected name, member and competitor.”