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A Duty Free Story. Sign of Our Times?

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Introduction by: Peter Marshall


Hello Everyone. A happy New Year to all! We kick off the year with a duty free tale of our times, one from recent personal experience. I think it reflects what we all know and see whenever we travel. In this case I was travelling with my friend and, whilst we both bought at the store in question, there were clearly missed opportunities from the sales staff and the customer service at the tills that left much to be desired. While price was also clearly an identified issue for my friend, with a little more attention from both sales and check-out counter staff, there would have been a greater basket size delivered and a far better experience felt when exiting the store. A sign of our times?

Travelling with someone who’s not as frequent a  traveller as me can be quite an experience. We are all so used to the routine – check-in, lines at security, the laptop out of its bag etc.  Her comment “why do you have that with you,  I thought we were taking some time off” brings a twinge of guilt and a dreadful admission that the laptop is somehow part of me. Are there three in our relationship?

Then comes the riot of colour, the smell, the sounds and, I always think, the touch of luxury and glamour of the duty free shops. Instinctively, I go straight to walking the store layout, then look for new products and  check out the promotions – especially for fragrances and drinks. I turn and  find my friend checking the prices.

“Woow, look at this,” she says. “This is crazy. I’m sure I can get this at my local high street for a lot less.” I start to explain to her – again – about the rents, the overheads and other problems associated with the industry. It’s a fruitless task as she comes back with a look that says ‘really?’ which immediately ends me continuing my monologue. So  I follow her as she weaves her way through the store, still checking the prices and shaking her head.

For a moment I wonder how many other travellers now see the duty free store through similar eyes. She moves rather quickly through the beauty section, stopping only to check out some  local fragrances and skincare lines which actually manage to attract her attention.

“I like this,” she says, looking at a brand which details all ingredients and its backstory. That makes her stop, but not for long. And while she looks closely at the products and shows interest as the brand ambassador starts to provide more information, she still chooses not to buy. I ask her why. “We can come back if I don’t find anything else,” she says and continues towards the fine food section.

From a distance,  she is enthusiastic. “Now, this could be worth looking at. I can get creams at home, but these products look perfect for unusual Christmas gifts, something really different.” Her interest, however, drops as soon as she checks out the prices. In this case I can only agree with her.

“You know, I saw the same thing  in that cute little deli we went into yesterday. I’m annoyed, why didn’t I buy it there? Just look at the price of this. Ridiculous!” A sales assistant approaches but moves away rather quickly as he realises  that my friend isn’t considering the products, she is just  looking at the prices. That’s a sales mistake.

“Same problem,” I start to explain. “The profit margins are smaller than elsewhere – it’s hard to understand this business if you are not part of it.”

I get another look and she’s quick to answer. “Now I know why airport stores always look so well-stocked, even if there are a lot of people in them. If most travellers are like me and increasingly price-conscious, they won’t be buying anything. But I could do with a coffee before the flight.”

As we start to leave the store,  she sees an eye-catching fragrance promotion. Leading brands, all discounted to a set price. “Now we’re talking,” she says. “My niece has a birthday tomorrow and this could be the perfect gift.”

Not having to compare prices, she considers all the fragrances for women and finally chooses one. Result, I think! In the meantime, I’ve already found and purchased my favourite bottle of wine. In my case no sales staff approached me and I noticed two just chatting in a corner a short distance away. Mistake number two.

So then we both head to the cashier counter together. There’s a short wait, during which time I look at what other travellers are buying. Two have rather full baskets, featuring  a mixture of products –  beauty, drinks, sunglasses and confectionery – while others, like my friend, are holding single products.

We move towards one of the four cashiers. My friend’s bright “hello,” somehow hangs in the air as two of the store’s employees take their time to finish a  conversation. Yes, you’ve guessed it, mistake number three. I and others have witnessed far too much of this in other travel retail stores. Now my friend is getting impatient, too, and the sales assistant swipes the product’s barcode and points to the price without looking up, just tapping on the small screen.

A debit card is offered, the purchase is completed, and the small package is pushed back across the counter. Still no eye contact, no conversation whatsoever and, more importantly, no thank you. Three further mistakes in one transaction.

I look at my friend. Her face says it all. She’s livid. Shaking her head and offering a very loud and sarcastic “thank you!”, she puts the fragrance in her bag, and we move away from the counter to leave the store. Then she spies the customer feedback machine. You know, those smiley touch ones which I am generally  always happy to use in an airport environment. My friend almost punched the red frowny version, letting everyone know what I already knew – she was clearly not impressed. Even the coffee was not mentioned again.

She was, of course, just one traveller in that bustling European city airport. We all know how good the airport experience can be, but I am wondering just how many other travellers head for their flights disgruntled based on similar experiences.  And how many share their experiences with others when they get home. Pause for thought.

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