Inflight duty-free shopping: A necessity or a fad?

ByMichael Otieno

Inflight duty-free shopping: A necessity or a fad?

I ended my 2016 flying activities just 4,000 miles shy of the 200,000 frequent flyer miles mark. That’s an average of 3,700 miles a week.

At this rate, I am well on the way to achieving the coveted “Million Miler” status that rewards members of certain airline alliances for their extraordinary long-term loyalty.

When you fly so frequently, tucking away all those flyer miles week on week, there is no excitement in flying anymore except for the possibilities that await at your destination.

You can only toy with the inflight entertainment, sleep, flip through a book or pretend to be busy at your computer for so long before boredom kicks in.

At some point, you drop the act and open your eyes to the exciting surroundings of the cabin and fellow passengers.

Rather than delve into other people’s frightful inflight habits, I took to observing and profiling fellow passengers as a way of passing time.

What they read, how they dressed, how much they ate, what they bought, the size of their carry-on luggage among other indicators all told a story about each individual flyer.

For instance, you can always tell a newbie on board by how tightly they grip the armrest during takeoff or landing.

But even more interesting is how quickly some passengers toss aside the wine or beer and immerse themselves into some sort of prayer at the first sign of turbulence.

While the eating habits of flyers remain a mixed basket, it is not until the duty-free trolley comes rolling down the aisle that the full extent of the motives behind inflight buying behaviour are revealed.

My attention gravitates towards the activity around this trolley because there are so many schools of thought on the benefits of inflight duty free offerings.

There is always the heavy spender who gets you worried they will buy the entire duty-free offering as they pick different fragrances that end up being packed in different bags — which is no big deal — but you can always tell the cabin crew have been tested to their limits by the time they close the sale.

Then there is the whisky connoisseur who cannot seem to make up his mind between a choice of two basic scotch whiskeys, which he ends up buying anyway as there is never a very wide variety.

God forbid if he opens one of them and starts drinking on board —  which is not allowed but which some passengers do anyway, perhaps where the particular drink is not part of the inflight refreshment offering.

And as if not to miss the party, there is always that passenger who wants just about anything and everything except what’s contained in the duty-free catalogue.

But is inflight duty free shopping worth all the fuss?

Most airports, particularly key hubs such as Schiphol, Heathrow, Dubai or O.R Tambo have so much in the way duty-free offerings, wonder what excitement is attached to buying inflight.

Besides there are also many cities that offer commodities discounted way below airline and airport duty free rates.

On the flip side, however, it is difficult to overlook the fact that not everyone arrives at the airport with ample time to visit the duty-free shops, and so they resort to inflight buying.

Further, there are airports whose boarding gates are a good distance away from the duty-free shopping area – passengers have been known to miss their flights while immersed in shopping.

And yet some prices on select commodities at certain airport duty-free outlets are more expensive compared with those at retail outlets.

A good example is Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport, whose duty-free shops lack variety and often have over-priced items.

There is also the point that some inflight duty free items are exclusively available for onboard retail and every now and then you come across irresistible promotions and offers on specific flights.

Some airlines even have bundle offers with Air Miles on offer when you make a duty-free purchase.

Unfortunately, in this region, airports and airlines are all caught up a in tasteless copy and paste routines with the contents of the catalogues not having evolved much over time.

While it is worth noting that most regional airlines now allow the browsing of their duty-free catalogues online and online payments in advance, they all seem to stock from the same supplier.

It may be worth inquiring with your airline of choice to see if you could purchase or book your duty-free wish list and have the items delivered on board.

This has the added benefit of having a wider variety to choose from, and perhaps even discounts to boot.

Space on an aircraft comes at a premium, and the operators are not afforded the luxury of stocking such a big variety of products, as a normal duty-free shop in the terminal building would.

At the very least, the in-flight shopping magazine and duty free trolley certainly do pique my interest.

This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine January 14, 2017 To shop or not to shop inflight


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About the Author

Michael Otieno author

Michael Otieno is Managing Partner at SADIM Airline Management Solutions, an airline management consultancy practice with a focus on African airlines and airports.