Sure, we all dream of the big vacation: sipping champagne on a first-class flight to a tropical destination where the hours can pass as you lie on a sun-soaked beach and enjoy the local ambiance. The truth, however, is a little less glamorous, often involving stuffy flights and crowded airports and paying inflated prices on virtually everything. Somewhere in the middle, though, is that shining beacon midway through the trip, calling out to us like the Siren’s song from the airport – the duty-free shop.
A duty-free shop (or store) is a specialised location, most likely in the international zone of an airport or right across a national border, where you can purchase specialty goods – often alcohol, tobacco, perfume/cologne, etc. – without having to pay the local or national taxes/duties.
Originating as a single shop started in 1947 by Brendan O’Regan in Shannon Airport (Ireland) as a service for Trans-Atlantic passengers, it was not long before the idea caught on, and, by the 1970’s, duty-free locations began popping up at international airports around the globe.
As for merchandise and sales, well, if you are surprised by the fact that fragrance and cosmetics sell almost twice as much as the wine and spirits category (31% to 17%), you will be shocked to learn that South Korea’s Incheon Airport recently overtook Dubai’s Duty Free in 2016, with sales of $1.85 billion.
From being a post-war innovation as Trans-Atlantic flights became more common to current estimates of the duty-free market reaching $114 billion by 2021, it is easy to assume that duty-free, as a phrase, is a relatively modern occurrence.
But interestingly, it was first used in 1689 when the London Gazette reported of an Order in Council which stated that: “The Term allowed for the Importation of Provisions and Necessaries into Ireland Duty-free,” referring to the principal Irish exports to England at the time – linen and linen yarn, rising nearly 50 times over the period of 1683, and naturally Irish linen put in a favourable duty-free position soon captured most of the British market.
Followed by Thomas Jefferson’s Writings from 1793, viewing a claim of France to the right of certain duty-free privileges: “…it would be as unreasonable to demand duties on the goods they had taken from an enemy…But the armed vessels of France have been also admitted to land & sell their prize goods here for consumption; in which ease, it is as reasonable they should pay duties. Where a treaty does not give the principal right of selling, the additional one of selling duty free cannot be given.”
The use of the term to refer to specific items can be traced to a 1958 article in the London Times, which states that: “The meagre stub in his mouth had burnt out and I offered him one of my duty-frees.” While a duty-free shop is first mentioned in only 1965, when the testers at the Which? Magazine, looking to promote informed consumer choice in the purchase of goods and services, noted that: “Not all airports have duty-free shops.”
Finally, we are also witnessing the concept of duty-free soaring above the airports as well, as can be seen in a Sunday Times advertisement from 1985: “During the flight, our cabin staff will be coming round with drinks and Duty-Frees.”