Dear Duty Free Stores:
With apologies to the late 17th Century playwright William Congreve,
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like an air passenger scorned.
And I know that I speak for the millions of air travellers who pass through your doors. We try to love you. We try to be loved. We give you our money that helps to feed your families. Why do you treat us like scuttling vermin?
In a bygone era, entering through your portals was equivalent to walking through the doors of Selfridge’s or Fortnum and Mason’s. Names such as Chanel, Dior, Laphroaig, Rolex, and Gucci gave you a patina of exclusivity, and an air of snobbery. Duty Free Shop bags carrying your goods announced to the world that the bearer was gifted with a degree of wealth, or an expense account freed from the shackles of audit.
Times have changed. The Internet now allows us to order luxury goods, comparing prices, from around the world from the comfort of your sitting room. Many Duty Free shops still offer familiar luxury brands, but they also offer what the marketing gurus call “disposable and impulse purchases.” It is with these latter categories that we feel your disdain that causes us no small degree of umbrage.
In our world of EU trade agreements and VAT taxes, the original concept of a “Duty Free” shop where travellers could buy goods without having to pay excise taxes on them, if they were departing the country, has markedly changed. I recently flew to New York from London. After skipping breakfast in order to make my flight, I stopped at one of your “Duty Free” shops to purchase an exorbitantly overpriced bottle of water. I was treated like a bounder trying to sneak my way into The Groucho Club. “Sir, we will need to see your boarding pass and scan it through the register.” For water? “Sir, unless you provide us with your boarding pass proving to us that you are leaving the country, we will have to ask you to leave.” I began to panic as a looked over my shoulder expecting to see a liveried sergeant-at-arms rushing toward me to physically eject me from the store.
Why? Why do you treat us in such a way? Perhaps the answer lies with three letters…VAT. The VAT is already reflected in the price of goods. If the purchaser’s boarding pass is swiped, the flight number and date are associated with the purchase. This means that since the purchase is being taken out of the country, the VAT does not apply. The merchant applies for and receives a reimbursement of the VAT they paid. Interestingly, we poor consumers have been “double dipped.” We paid the VAT, and you receive the VAT reimbursement. As Cicero so aptly said, O Tempora, O Mores! What has become of us?
Of course the Brexit thing has thrown the whole situation into a cocked hat. With the UK leaving the EU, will that mean that we’ll be able to buy our water and cigarettes at the airport without the demand to see our boarding passes? Of course the store owners will have to learn to be a bit more civil.
In any case, I think I’ll pack my water in my carry-on from now on.
All the best to you,
A Concerned Traveller