Duty-free perfumes take on a life of their own. We may well desire a new travel scent, but sometimes we leave our sense at home. And yes, we’ve all been there, seen it and done it (the impulse, regretted purchase) by following the scent bait that lures us to the duty-free perfume sections of floodlit airport retailers.
We can’t avoid their bling. Both departure and arrivals’ halls force us to slalom our carry-on luggage past tester stands. Eyes to the right for the latest YSL; eyes to the left for the latest Dior and occasionally eyes front if we’re not to crimp the heels of the passengers ahead.
Wafting hedione and abundant musks, the duty-free boutiques are either for the hedonist or those keen to foster a headache, depending on your reason for travel. If you’re in the club lounge away from the fray, you can be spared the compulsion to consume in World Duty Free.
The concourse fragrance halls won’t mind. They aren’t necessarily after those with expense accounts to splash about. They are far keener to attract travelers with funny money and a reckless, blow-it-all mentality before they head to the non-priority queue and escape for a week or two.
Buying perfume duty free is akin to sneaking a peek at Hello magazine. Just as we pick up and flick through this doyenne of gossip magazines in dentists’ waiting rooms, so too do we kill time meandering the duty-free fragrance aisles passing by the latest celebrity perfumes.
Hello, with its neutered, stage-set photos always puts the best faces forward: never a wrong angle; never a celeb caught off guard. Similarly presented in glossy colour on point-of-sale stands are perfumery’s equivalent: celebrities, both fading and those with fame just thrust upon them. We’ve grown up and grown old with some. Others we stare blankly at; they look familiar because they rip-off divas of decades past, but we can’t place their names.
Here, we have the confidence to rub shoulders with big names we’d never meet on our high streets back home. The duty free perfume boutique is much less threatening a place to spritz a tester without the watchful eye of a judgmental sales assistant. We can shop in our heels or tracksuit bottoms and trainers. What we might feel uneasy with in Harrods, we feel free to do in Heathrow.
The impulse buy perfume
I remember my first duty free perfume: Laura Biagiotti’s Roma purchased in Rome’s Fiumicino. I was flying to the Eternal City every other weekend to visit my partner who was working there. I loved every one of those 48-hour visits and had got to know the city, cobblestone by cobblestone, from Stazione Termini to the rough charm of Trastevere, and from the poshness of Parioli to the street vibe of Piramide. How I wanted to capture Rome’s dolce vita when back on the Heathrow shuttle to the sound of rain.
Roma was going to be bought at all costs whatever its drydown. It turned out to be a predictably wearable fragrance but I could barely put my nose on why it was representative of Rome. It didn’t really matter. The Doric columned bottle was more than half my reason for buying. My mind played tricks, and Roma did what I wanted it too; it transported my body and soul to my other half in his corporate flat in Rome’s suburbs. I’d call it on the scale of duty-free buys a ‘strategic impulse’ purchase.
I had succumbed to what retail analysts call the ‘Golden Hour’; the spending phenomenon that takes place before we board. Relieved to have run the gauntlet of grim-faced security in our stockinged feet, we relax and seek some small indulgence before we are herded and hassled once more. Having limited ourselves to 100ml, we seek a perfume fix to make up for the miserable amount we’ve packed to make sure our bags fit and pass the scanners.
The Golden Hour of duty-free shopping
This Golden Hour is other wordly; a period like the daylight saving that makes no sense, yet is thrust upon us and can be frittered away as our fancy takes us. Qatar’s Hamad International Airport has the Golden Hour’s zeitgeist sussed in a strapline describing its offer of “…seemingly endless shopping, dining and relaxation”.
It’s not just high, non-aeronautical income earners like London’s Heathrow or Middle Eastern airports such as Dubai and Qatar that can claim premier league airmall status. Istanbul and several Chinese airports are expanding and promoting their pre- and post-flight retail space in a hurry to cash in.
Our travel money is up for grabs and fragrance and beauty retailers know this all too well. L’Oreal says travel retail is its ‘6th continent’ and one of its three largest markets.
Big names aside, we’re now finding niche brands in duty-free perfume boutiques. But will they disappoint their original customers if they start featuring Hello-style in aisles alongside the tired or the talentless? With niche being bought by big brands and big brands launching scents as exclusive and niche, the airport duty free is a great leveler. Just as the benefit of priority boarding has all but gone, so too, on face value, has the benefit of being niche in perfumery.
The perfumista will take solace in knowing another hush-hush, insider-only brand will be along soon. With luck, it will be around just long enough to indulge in before it too is attracted to the bright lights of stardom and sees out its golden hours in airport halls of fame. ‘Hello’ magazine has found its nemesis in the duty-free fragrance hall. Ageing divas and hyped new talent tempt us to spend in airside’s Golden Hour.
Duty-free Perfume Buying Tips
In that golden hour between check-in and boarding, you are captive in the lounge, bored and likely to browse and shop to while away time. Cosmetics and perfumes are the biggest selling category of duty-free goods so expect to be ovewhelmed by the choice in larger airports.
The first thing to note is that duty-free prices are not always cheaper than on the high street or online. So do the research before you fly to shop around, checking of course that you are not comparing rip-offs with the genuine branded item.
Secondly, be aware the luxury fragrance brands use airport stores to test out new launches before general release. This means you can find perfumes that won’t be on the high street, and can sometimes benefit from pre-release prices.
Do’s and Don’ts of duty-free perfume purchases
DO research perfumes before you fly. Go to your local perfumeries or drug stores to trial them, note the prices and if possible take samples home. In this way, you will know if a perfume suits you and can compares prices in the duty free with those on your high street.
DO research the airport duty-free stores online before you head off. Go online to find out which retailers stocking perfumes, and which brands are available in the airport you are flying from. This saves you time airside.
DO buy in the airside departure lounge not off the in-flight trolley. You will have a far greater selection. Often the in-flight trolley has a poor selection and the celebrity brands of the moment.
DO buy in the arrivals stores as you exit the airport. It’s a good policy to pick up samples and spritz perfumes to test when you fly out. You can use the testers on your trip. Then, having assessed them, pick up the full bottle on your return. This saves you carrying it around while away too.
DON’T spritz every tester. Choose between 3-5 perfumes to trial and test on your wrist a maximum of 2-3. Use the perfume blotters and take those away, trying to keep them separate. After a while, all the perfumes you’ve tested will blur together so tester strips packaged in pages of a magazine are a good idea to keep them separated.
DON’T annoy other passengers. If you avoid the point above, you can avoid asphyxiating your fellow passengers on the flight with a perfumed cocktail wafting around you.
Reference & further reading
The Sixth Continent: Battle to Catch People in the Golden Hour – The Economist: 10/05/14
Buy before you Fly: What to Buy Duty Free – The Daily Mail, 12/04/15
Value of the Duty-Free Perfumes and Cosmetics Market – The Nuance Group.