Shopping in the Departure Lounge

This week I am in the US on a business trip combined with an academic conference. So it will mean 7 nights, 6 different cities, 5 different beds and a lot of time at airports.

I arrived in Lexington last night via London Heathrow and Chicago O’Hare.  For some reason there was a 4 hour layover in Heathrow and a 5 hour layover at O’Hare. The wonders of modern air travel….

O’Hare is a huge airport spread over a number of terminals, not unlike Heathrow. However, Heathrow at least has a number of decent shops at which one can while away the time.  O’Hare is not that kind of place.


Hence a decision was made pretty early on.  The layover at O’Hare would be for work and at Heathrow, at least some time for browsing.  Some familiar names from the high street were in evidence: Thomas Pink, Harrods, Dixon.  However, much more in evidence were stores that aren’t easily identified from the high street, selling high value goods.

So it was that I found myself wandering into an expensive watch shop where an incredibly warm saleswoman greeted me. A sort of kindly fair godmother figure, she told me she had been doing this for 28 years. It showed.  She was very good at what she did.

I had a look at a Breitling watch.  She got it out, explained its functions and features and then asked whether I would like to try it on, pointing out with the utmost tact that it was probably slightly more elegant than the watch I was wearing.  Understatement.


It was a beautiful thing.  Blue crystal face chronograph, blue alligator leather strap.  Water resistant to 100m.

So I tried it on and to be honest my first impression was ‘underwhelment.’  (My spellcheck thinks that such a word does not exist.  It ought to.)  The leather watch strap felt no better quality than my humble fossil (not that I know a great deal about what a quality watch strap should feel like).

Breitling transocean 38 BlueA4131012-C862-718P-A18BA.1

But then it grew on me very quickly.  In many ways it is a very similar style to my Fossil (what can I say, I know what I like) but just a little more elegant, a little smaller diameter face and a little less thick which meant that it slips under ones cuffs a little easier.

I don’t know whether my impression of the leather straps showed.  My saleswoman pointed out that leather straps were more or less a consumable (my words not hers).  The watch should last forever but the straps will not.  Dependent on use it could last 3-5 years but if you went swimming in it every other weekend it would last 9 months.


That made sense to me.  If you buy a Ferrari you don’t expect that the tyres will last longer than they do on a humble Toyota; probably the opposite.  So one does not conclude that the car is a piece of Italian crap because the tyres wear out after 10,000 miles when on a Toyota one might get 15 thousand miles. So it is one does not judge the quality of a Breitling by how durable the strap feels.

Then came the moment.  How much does this cost?  I had been discreetly trying to spot the price.  But just as discreetly the prices are on a tiny tag underneath the watches in the display case so they cannot be seen.  Five-two-five she said. I was surprised. I didn’t know what the cost of a Breitling was but I just assumed it would cost far more than that.

2014-Ferrari-LaFerrari-Car-Review So I said so.  ‘Ah’, she said, ‘It would cost far more on the high street.  Because this is tax free shopping you save 20% which equates to over a thousand pounds off the price.’

At that point two pennies dropped.  One after the other.

When she said five-two-five either I didn’t hear the final digit or that is the way people speak in this rarefied end of the market. One does not need to mention that final zero because it is assumed. The watch didn’t cost £525.  It cost £5,250!  I was glad I had already passed it back by this time because I might had dropped it in embarrassment.  That was the first penny to drop.  The Breitling was reassuringly expensive.

The second penny to drop was this.  If I were in the market for a Breitling I would absolutely buy it in a tax free shopping area precisely because 20% off would be worth a cool £1,000. The money saved would pay for the airfare which entitled you to be in the Departure lounge in the first place!


The wealthy presumably are wealthy in part because they make canny decisions like these.

Suddenly I understood why there are so many expensive shops in departure lounges. It is one of the few places that high value items like these became less painfully expensive.

At some point someone has got to figure out how to sell cars in a departure lounge.  We’ll all be buying our cars at the airport then….


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