The sun had not yet come up, and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport was practically empty at 6:30 a.m. on a chilly day last January, but the Hermès boutique in Terminal 2E was open and the saleslady was more than happy to show me the putty-colored Jypsière bag advertised in the window for 4,600 euros. Did I mention it was 6:30 in the morning? I hadn’t even had a café crème yet and the bank where I hoped to change a pocketful of euros back into pathetic dollars was still not staffed. But there I was, already clocking 12 percent discounts at Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, and Prada. Once limited to tax-free cigarettes, vodka, and the occasional box of chocolate, the $37 billion global duty-free shopping business has taken on a whole new look since the concept made its debut in Ireland’s Shannon Airport in 1947.
“If you walk through any airport you would think the world was run by ten brands,” says Paris-based Italian designer Giambattista Valli, referring to the plethora of Dior, Chanel, Prada, and Gucci boutiques popping up alongside every runway. One of Valli’s discoveries on a recent trip to Asia was a trove of Pañpuri beauty products at the Bangkok airport. Of course, fragrances and beauty products have long been a staple of most duty-free shops. I remember stocking up on such hard-to-find French pharmacy products as Embryolisse and Avène at Orly airport in the mid 1990’s. But these days, those quaint pharmacies and organic beauty shops are often overshadowed by the more glamorous luxury brands. Much of the growth in duty-free shopping in the past 10 years can be attributed to security measures that force travelers to arrive earlier and therefore spend more time at airports. Once they’ve cleared security—potentially enduring the dreaded pat-down—fliers now find themselves in a virtual luxury mall where the doors open at dawn and often don’t close until almost midnight.
My friend Michela Ratti, a fragrance executive based in Geneva, clued me in to the bargains and services now available when she regaled me with stories about tracking down a pair of “sold-out” Gucci boots at Milan’s Malpensa airport, shopping at the Valentino boutique in Rome’s Fiumicino Terminal 3, or calling ahead to her Chanel salesperson at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 to make sure they had a certain dress in her size.
“It’s my obsession. If I could be anywhere in the world, I’d like to be in Terminal 5 at Heathrow,” she says, laughing. That’s where she finds Smythson diary refills, Boots chemist vitamins, and a great Elemis spa. Ratti regularly flies in and out of Geneva, Zurich, Venice, Milan’s Malpensa, JFK, and Heathrow, and often does her Christmas shopping at Venice’s Marco Polo airport. “In Zurich there’s a whole side of duty-free that’s open until ten p.m. seven days a week, which is a real convenience,” she says. “If you arrive late from a trip you can still buy food to take home.”
The best duty-free shopping really does depend on the destination. Madrid’s Barajas Airport has a great selection of wines, Zurich has a branch of the Swiss chocolatier Sprüngli, and Charles de Gaulle has Hédiard, where Ratti has been known to buy a cheese plate, “if I’m feeling brave and can sit with it on my lap on the plane!” The ne plus ultra of duty-free shopping can be found in Hong Kong—“like New York’s Fifth Avenue in an airport”—that Ratti says is worth the detour. Even in Nairobi, on the way home from a safari, Ratti discovered a store selling beautiful locally produced children’s pajamas and caftans.
In my latest early-morning spree at Charles de Gaulle I caressed piles of brightly colored cashmere sweaters at Ralph Lauren, ogled Cartier’s white-gold Ballon Bleu watch, and even tried on Van Cleef & Arpels’s long Alhambra necklace. The Prada shop had a black-and-white-checked floor just like the one in its Galleria Vittorio Emanuele shop in Milan, a detail that seemed to make a black nylon trolley for $1,631 all the more alluring. I considered buying a few chic Prada pouches in rich shades of fuchsia and tangerine as last-minute gifts. And I even wandered into a kids’ store selling Burberry and Bonpoint. Seven in the morning still seemed awfully early. Instead I settled on a Hello Kitty T-shirt for my daughter.
Kate Betts is the author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style (Clarkson Potter; $35).