Duty Free Shopping Deals?

We recently returned from our big overseas trip of the year and I was amazed by the growing scale of ‘Duty Free Shopping’ in the Tel Aviv airport we returned from.

In the enormous, circular airport concourse – big enough to hold a World Cup football game, it would seem – there were some of the biggest ‘Duty Free’ stores I had ever seen. They had the typical selection of alcohol, cosmetics, candy, and tobacco, but the stores went way beyond that with massive inventories of sports apparel, electronics, and purses. There was a Tumi luggage shop (which makes some sense at an airport), but the ‘Duty Free’ Victoria’s Secret and LEGO Store were a bit of a surprise.

The Duty Free electronics store was organized like a big box retailer – with an Apple & Samsung store within a store. They were even selling 60” flat screen TVs that no one could possibly stow in their airplane overhead compartment. The sports apparel store looked as fully kitted-out as the Nike Store at the Mall of America back in Minnesota (largest indoor mall in the USA).

When did ‘Duty Free Shopping’ become such a big business? The biggest store in the Tel Aviv airport we saw today had 48 checkout lanes!

These stores must post incredible revenues to justify so much space & investment, but I don’t see the value myself. The concept is that you are avoiding significant import, sin, & luxury taxes by buying at the airport (or, on a cruise ship), but I am skeptical that savings is reflected in what you actually pay.

Last year we priced out Scotch whisky on a trip to Scotland and found the price in our hometown Total Wine store to be cheaper than the ‘Duty Free’ airport store at London Heathrow (or directly at the distillery in Oban).

My wife priced out some favorite cosmetics before a trip in January and they were priced comparably in the Duty Free ships in the Caribbean. On this trip, she saw some expensive shampoo/conditioner she buys in the giant Duty Free store, but it wasn’t worth the ‘lug it home’ factor to save even a precious few bucks.

Besides, many if these products aren’t the kind you would expect to have big duties on anyway, are they? Are governments now putting huge taxes on the latest LEGO fire truck set?

Perhaps while they are ‘Duty Free’ they have also been premium priced?

(I should note that we are not smokers, but cigarette taxes may make shopping here a good idea)

I think just like the ‘Manufacturers Outlet Malls’ that are now near every tourist area, ‘Duty Free Shops’ have become just another retail channel, without much more benefit to the consumer than any other shopping location. As is typical, we bought only some overpriced candy for our son as a treat on the way home from Tel Aviv.

I think if you are not buying things purely for convenience in a Duty Free shop, you are probably wasting your time.

What’s your experience? Do you regular buy things in Duty Free shops when you travel?

Image Credits: MrFireStation.com

3 thoughts on “Duty Free Shopping Deals?

  1. So – had to weigh in here. You are comparing duty free shipping to the most efficient consumer marketplace in the world – the USA. If you think that we NEVER pay list price but always a discount that is about 30% or more plus our sales tax is modest it non-existent on some items (food/clothes perhaps). The people that shop duty free are from countries that have high prices and even higher VAT (or TVA or GST) taxes in the range of 21%. Plus some countries may not offer the selection you are accustomed to seeing. I know a guy in Indonesia that had to import parts for his Weber grill. People Afton Japan or the UK will often fly a junket to MSP and shop the mega mall because they can pay for the whole trip with savings and still put money in their pocket.

    As a US citizen I never understood duty free. As a FSE in Europe, it quickly made sense….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting perspective – certainly I am only familiar with the US perspective. I always wondered why the Mall of America attracted so many foreign visitors. They are prepping now for a big expansion with luxury brand stores.


    2. My son shared this interesting video about how airports make money. It focuses on privately owned London Heathrow and shows how important Duty Free Shopping is to the airports bottom line: My son shared this interesting video about how airports make money. It focuses on privately owned London Heathrow and shows how important Duty Free Shopping is to the airports bottom line: https://youtu.be/wdU1WTBJMl0


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