Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Psychology Of Airport Shopping - Niche Perfumery Comes To Abu Dhabi Duty Free

She reaches into the plastic tray, takes out her handbag and slings it over her shoulder. She hoists her bright orange case off the conveyor belt and places it on the ground. She extends the handle, takes a breath and then walks away from the queue, towards the gleaming logos. Louis Vuitton. Gucci. Hermès. As the lights from the displays fall upon her features, her scowl softens, relaxes, and slowly turns into a smile. Her eyes widen. She raises herself up to the tips of her toes, very briefly. She lets out a six-year-old's chuckle. And then, quietly, her smile now a grin, she whispers a triumphant "Yes!" before dashing into the first shop.

People-watching at airports is always fascinating, but I found the incident above particularly interesting, as it took place soon after my visit to the new perfume counter at Abu Dhabi Airport, a visit which prompted various musings on the psychology of airport shopping.

I have no doubt that marketeers and advertisers have spent - and continue to spend - hundreds of thousands of pounds on research designed to discover exactly what makes us part with our cash before we jump on a flight. But unsurprisingly, they tend not to make their findings public: they don't wish to reveal all their hard-earned secrets. That said, there is some info out there for those willing to seek it out - much of it anecdotal - and it certainly raises intriguing ideas about why so many of us seem to find it easy to spend sums of money which we'd never allow ourselves to spend outside the highly structured, ritualised experience of going from baggage check-in to passport control to X-ray machine to departure lounge.

The curious effect of time seems to be one of the key factors. As passengers, we're slaves to the schedules of others. When we emerge from the security queue, we glance at the info screen and carry out a quick mental calculation to work out how many minutes we have in which to gulp down a cappuccino, go to the toilet, buy a bottle of water, pick up a packet of Toblerone, scan the paperbacks on offer and then see if there's anything interesting on offer at the Ray-Ban counter or the Swatch shop. Travel retailers believe that this finite time slot influences our spending behaviour: we have to make snap decisions because we know we won't have an opportunity to return to those too-good-to-miss Bose headphones or that Michael Kors purse. We convince ourselves that we're getting a bargain, because we buy into the idea that airport prices are lower than those on the high street.

Of course, there are also scenarios in which airport time appears to be anything but finite (10-hour transit in Munich, anyone?) and this plays into the hands of the shops too. In these cases, we spend because we're bored. The resolve which stopped us from buying yet another purple eyeshadow back home crumbles under the weight of waiting.

On other occasions, spending becomes easy because 'holiday mode' starts the minute you step into the Duty Free section. You've saved up your cash, you've been waiting for this trip for months and so you're permitting yourself a small treat. A similar effect operates on the return journey: you have some 'holiday money' left over, which means it's effectively not 'real world' money, so you tell yourself that spending it won't make any difference. And then of course there's the need to buy a last-minute gift for someone. In each of these instances, the retailers effectively have us wound around their well-manicured little fingers.

Then there are the more controversial explanations. It may be the safest way to travel, but there's no denying that flying makes many people very jittery indeed. Could pre-journey nerves prompt a burst of recklessness? Certainly, there are some who believe that if you're about to embark on what you consider to be a life-threatening experience, you're more likely to throw caution to the wind and make decisions you'd consider ill-advised when you're in a more normal state of mind. In other words, you may as well buy that Paul Smith suit because, hey, you only live once... and maybe for not much longer...

Whatever the reasons, we spend a great deal of money on perfume when we pass through airports. In fact, many brands consider travel retail to be crucial to their continued success. Recent surveys published by The Moodie Report indicate that fragrances and cosmetics are consistently in the top 2 spending categories at countless airports around the world. Their popularity is second only to that of alcoholic drinks. What's more interesting is that the majority of us make impulse buys at airports. Indeed, according to another Moodie Report article, 67% of Chinese shoppers claim that the purchases they make at Duty Free shops are unplanned. In the face of the stats, it's difficult to deny that when we travel, we like to spend our cash on perfume and we like to be spontaneous. 

Of course, when I say 'we', I mean that conveniently non-defined bunch of 'other people' huddled in the corner over there. Personally, I haven't bought a perfume at an airport for years. There was a time when picking up a bottle was almost a must, a conscious hunt for a pre-emptive souvenir of the voyage ahead. And thank goodness! Had it not been for this self-imposed rule, I'd never have acquired a few of the real gems in my collection, notably Mathilde Laurent's Vol De Nuit Evasion for Guerlain and Sawsan from Ajmal (both discontinued, incidentally). But recently, I haven't been tempted by the increasingly generic offerings on display, especially when they're hyped up by crass marketing tactics (I still remember being mildly traumatised by the troupe attempting to cow me with the Ralph Lauren Pony quartet!). I've persuaded myself to feel quite philosophical about this. After all, a fragrance not purchased is money saved.

However, change is afoot. If Abu Dhabi Airport is a sign of things to come, the idle wander through Duty Free could soon become more enticing than it ever was before. The perfume section at Terminal 2 was recently refurbished and now, alongside the usual clutch of Diors, Chanels, D&Gs, Versaces and Paco Rabannes, it features a bone fide niche enclave. It's not huge, but it's very pointedly set apart from the rest of the stock and its design aspires to that most lucrative of current labels: luxury. The list of brands it stocks would no doubt fuel a debate amongst impassioned scentusiasts, but at least it's indisputably non-mainstream: it currently features Diptyque, Penhaligon's, The Different Company and - don't shoot the messenger - By Kilian and Bond No 9. Some of these have never ventured into the world of travel retail. Apparently, more are in the pipeline.

If the move towards a more high-profile niche presence at airports proves successful - and there's every reason to predict that it will - then our experience as passengers will no doubt undergo some sort of alteration. But I wonder if it'll influence the output of the brands too. Will they remain true to their identity? Will they keep to their normal styles of creation? Or will they pander to the demands of that woman with the orange case, as she dashes from a skinny latte to a Lancôme mascara, before a disembodied voice tells her it's time to proceed to Gate 14C?

[With thanks to Rebecca Mann and Victoria Bowskill of The Moodie Report.]



  1. I too like to see which perfumes are available at Duty Free whenever I'm travelling. It is fascinating to see which perfumes have been selected and how they are presented. I can't help thinking that the bright lights and heat are less than ideal for keeping perfume in optimum condition so I don't buy either.
    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

    1. Anna, thanks for stopping by.

      I know what you mean about the bright lights, but I think stock at airports moves fairly quickly, so I wouldn't worry about that too much. That said, it isn't always easy to find something on which you actually want to spend your cash!

  2. Well, there was a display of Serge Lutens export line in Beirut duty free with a considerable price decrease. Naturally I stocked up - perhaps the first time I bought perfume for myself from an airport.

    1. Anon, lucky you! :-) I hope you managed to pick up some of your favourites.


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