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There's an inflight shopping magazine in the pocket of the seat in front of you - that no one reads.

The crew come through with a trolley of merchandise - that nobody buys.

There are special offers broadcasted over the PA - that aren't being listened to.

It was pretty cool like 20 years ago, but I don't really see the point anymore; why is onboard/inflight shopping still a thing?

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    Since even Ryanair keeps doing it and they're known for saving every penny, I'd guess that people still do buy stuff from the shopping magazine. On a personal note, I'm much more annoyed by all the "exquisite cuisine" ads when it comes to airline food. – JonathanReez Nov 22 '16 at 13:11
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    I regularly see people buying. The volume typically seems so low that I can't imagine it to be cost effective, but I'm just guessing: I don't know how much it costs them to keep the inventory on the plane; I don't know what the actual volume is; etc., etc. – phoog Nov 22 '16 at 13:26
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    You speak about cost effectiveness, but it's quite cheap to do it. The stewards are already there, and have free time to do it during of the flight. There aren't many expenses; the only one is the fuel cost of flying around a cartful of merchandise. – Federico Poloni Nov 22 '16 at 13:30
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    @pnuts the cart takes up more than the space of a passenger, at least two, but unless you find a way to cut people in pieces and later glue them back, I seriously doubt you'll be able to fit two additional passengers in the storage's cubic compartments – motoDrizzt Nov 22 '16 at 14:03
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    Since all of the nobody buys clauses are apparently false, it's not clear what you actually want to ask. Confirmation that sales happen? – user2338816 Nov 23 '16 at 2:28

13 Answers 13

101

From the media release on guestlogix.com:

The airline onboard retail industry has been growing annually at an average rate of 12.9% since 2012, and totaled more than $5 billion in sales in 2014...

Basically, it works, and makes the airlines more money. If it didn't, the airlines wouldn't do it (sidenote: Qantas is going to stop doing it this month). Captive market, bored passengers (customers), and duty free, even if some travellers might think they can get better deals elsewhere.

  • Tobacco, wine/spirits and fragrances/cosmetics account for 70% of DFTR sales
  • Region-specific DFTR trends exist – i.e. tobacco and wine/spirits are a larger percentage of overall sales in EMEA (44%) compared to Asia Pacific (12%)
  • With sales growth of 25%, short/medium haul and long haul flights could outpace X-long haul flights in the future, despite relatively even DFTR sales at present
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    "duty free"... Have you ever looked at the prices? Most item are much cheaper when bought in normal shops. – algiogia Nov 22 '16 at 14:01
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    Big brands rather sell exclusive products in duty free shops so you cannot compare how overpriced they are. – Leos Literak Nov 22 '16 at 14:19
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    :) maybe, though isn't that what Amazon is for – mcfedr Nov 22 '16 at 16:19
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    @mcfedr then you loose the day in the mail, not the mall ;) – simbabque Nov 22 '16 at 16:33
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    @njzk2 I think the point was that if you buy stuff in the plane you don't need to bring it with you onto the plane and you don't have to waste time going shopping at your destination. Ordering it online to your destination requires some kind of address if you want to order it up front. But you might not have a hotel, so that's hard. If you order it online after you arrive you need to wait for some time until you receive your stuff. Of course you can do something else with that time, but it's a day without the thing you didn't bring with you in the first place. – simbabque Nov 22 '16 at 17:00
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For busy executives (and other travellers) who would like to bring back a gift or present, this is heaven-sent. Also, some airlines offer exclusive items you simply cannot buy anywhere else. And it's more popular than you might think. On a recent British Airways flight out of London, my wife was disappointed when she could not purchase a certain kind of chocolates on-board because they had sold out and not yet had time to restock.

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    You are onto something -- perhaps they could even expense it... – chx Nov 22 '16 at 21:09
  • I wonder if what you're talking about is more about extremely limited stock (i.e. something close to "one of everything") than about popularity. – svick Nov 23 '16 at 18:09
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    Such as Johnnie Walker Island Green. Only supposed to be available in duty free bevindustry.com/articles/… – Matthew Lock Nov 24 '16 at 8:30
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    I think you're right, business people (and other busy people) just don't have time to buy presents anywhere else. For the same reason I buy presents for future occasions at the airports, not because they are cheaper, but just because I have time when I wait for another flight. My colleagues admitted they do the same. – nuoritoveri Nov 24 '16 at 18:22
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    You just made me add this to my bucket list. To buy something to sound like an executive. Though I'll probably only chocolate – Honey Nov 25 '16 at 13:18
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As other answers have pointed out, the mere fact that airlines still do it proves that it earns them money. But why would it make money even if most people don’t buy?

You have very good conditions inside an aeroplane for perfect marketing leaving the customer at a severe disadvantage. I’ll admit that they are getting worse, especially if more airlines and more destinations offer on-board Wi-Fi, but they are still there and the market is obviously growing.

  • There are a lot of people with little things to do. You present them with a complimentary magazine. A nonzero fraction will take it and look through it.

  • Inside this magazine, you can essentially advertise anything with any words you like. You can write duty-free everywhere (even if that specific product may not be eligible for duty-free at all; some products will be). You can print imaginary prices and then offer 50 % off (although many, especially European laws will prevent you from doing this if you land or are based in their country so this specific technique is not available everywhere). You can make things shiny and glittery and golden. A nonzero fraction of the first bullet point will want to buy something.

  • I’ll admit, some people don’t care about how much something costs. If it looks exclusive enough to them, they’ll bite the hook. Others may want to compare. ‘Darn, comparing prices in an aeroplane is really hard, the Wi-Fi is weak/not working/not offered and this is a type of item that I don’t usually buy. And it’s duty-free. And they’re offering another 10 % off. Damn, the price doesn’t look cheap, what does that actually cost in regular shops? It must be an expensive, exclusive item. I should go for it, it’ll never be as cheap again as now!’ A nonzero fraction of the former bullet point will choose to buy something.

This final number is undoubtedly a lot smaller than the number that would frequent a normal shop. However, many of the things in a normal shop just won’t work: come back later after comparing prices, the product will likely still be there. Thus, the margin of goods sold in-flight is going to be larger than that on-ground, and this difference in margin is why it is worthwhile even for a relatively small number of customers.


The above is only one set of marketing techniques proven to work — for all types of customers, indiscriminate of intelligence, social standing or other differences. Only the true absence of desire is a game-breaker (i.e. I’ll never buy cigarettes).

It’s by far not the only way how airlines can get a margin out of selling goods. As was pointed out in the comments (thanks!), some on-board prices are genuinely cheaper that off-board. The absence of taxes can, seemingly paradoxically, give a cheaper product a higher margin, as was also pointed out (thanks!).

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    @Relaxed You're both correct! Some in-flight prices are good, some are really bad. Some people buy fully aware of how good the price is, while some people don't know, don't care or don't have alternatives. – jpatokal Nov 23 '16 at 19:41
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    @Relaxed To be honest, I am always surprised what people read into what I say. I don’t read myself making a statement on the intelligence of anybody (including myself) in the post. – Jan Nov 23 '16 at 21:04
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    @Jan That you are not able to take your reader into account is not really an excuse for anything. Meanwhile, you still haven't addressed the substantial points I made. – Relaxed Nov 24 '16 at 0:11
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    I think that the point regarding "I'll admit" was that it doesn't fit with what you're saying. You can't admit something on behalf of a group that you don't belong to or represent in some way, so it generally doesn't make sense to say "I'll admit" before speaking about "some people". – Tom Fenech Nov 24 '16 at 15:29
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    Re "You can print imaginary prices and then offer 50 % off." - if you spot this in an airline that serves the UK, take a photo of the misleading ad and report it here: asa.org.uk/Consumers/How-to-complain/Online-Form/Step1.aspx – A E Nov 24 '16 at 21:40
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The crew come through with a trolley of merchandise - that nobody buys.

I did a quick price comparison for alcohol - I live in a locale whose sin taxes are among the top 10 in the world - in the following places:

  • In flight shopping
  • Airport duty-free shop
  • Local store

And surprise, the in flight option was the cheapest, followed by the duty-free shop! Granted, the item was on special in the in flight catalogue and they probably have deals with the airport shops to avoid competing with each other, but between being duty-free, the convenience, and the exclusive items often sold, I can see how a few people on each flight keeps this industry alive.

13

I really like Mark's answer. And while certain passengers may not find value in airline shopping the fact that it is profitable for the airline should make us all happy. As long as such profit centers exist, it makes flying cheaper for the rest of us.

I've not been exposed to the "trolley", but have flipped through the magazine as I was bored. Keep in mind that the airlines are probably receiving a fee for merely offering things for sale as well as a percentage of sales. In some respects it does not care if anything is sold.

It is probably going to get worse. In-flight entertainment will become more common on air frames. How will that be paid for? A key funding source will be advertisements.

So in the immortal words of The Tick: "Brace yourselves while corporate America attempts to sell us its wrenched things".

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    Yes, note how you can't skip forward during the ads already played before the movies even on business class... – chx Nov 22 '16 at 21:08
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When you don't have time to buy the items that you want at the duty free, this is very helpful.

Last summer I went to Japan with my girlfriend, and she wanted to buy cigarettes at the duty free during the transfer. We didn't have enough time since we only had 45 minutes between the first and second plane, so she bought her cigarettes during the second flight.

This is my personal experience, I'm sure there are other uses for this service.

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In addition to what has already been pointed out (that the perception 'nobody buys' is not correct), I would add that the sales people are already there and, as required by the aviation safety regulations, there are quite many of them. Now that you have the sales staff anyway, why not put them to work. The additional cost of stocking some merchandise is relatively small.

5

As already mentioned in numerous comments, people do buy stuff on board airplanes and that's reason enough for airlines to keep doing it. The fact that even low-cost carriers who ruthlessly optimize their operation haven't ditched it is prima facie evidence that it must be profitable.

In fact, trying to add incidental revenue is a big trend across all modes of transportation. In the last decades, I have seen train stations turned into shopping malls, ads appearing on the back of airliners' seats and inside buses, booking sites pushing "partners" (say an hotel when booking a flight or a car rental when booking an hotel) increasingly aggressively, and several airports I use regularly being redesigned to force passengers to go through shops on the way to the gate or even when landing. From that perspective, in-flight shopping isn't a leftover of a bygone era (like free meals on short-haul flights) but fully in line with the way air transport is going.

As to why it works, I have seen a lot of patronizing speculation in other answers on why people might buy things (boredom, inability to compare prices, falling for aggressive marketing) but there are simpler explanations: Prices on high-margin items like watches can actually be quite good and there is a lot of added value in being able to buy travel items (battery charger, plug adapter, etc.) when you need them, even if it's at a premium. In some situations, it might even be possible to benefit from some tax exemptions (which is particularly relevant for highly taxed goods like cigarettes).

Besides, it's not even clear to me that higher margins are necessary to make this worthwhile for the airlines. How many people enter a shop and buy something after walking by? How does the cost of carrying a cart and a few minutes of the cabin crew's time compare to the costs of prime commercial real-estate and full-time staff to maintain a luxury store front?

  • @pnuts Not sure I follow. I do question the premises of the question but that's the only valid answer to “why is it still a thing?” Also, I decided to post an answer to provide a slightly different angle but to the extent that questioning the fact that “nobody buys from the inflight boutique” isn't an answer, then this also applies to all the other answers that have been posted so far. – Relaxed Nov 25 '16 at 18:49
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As Mark Mayo points out, the on-board retail industry is growing at a fast rate. Some airlines generate a significant fraction of their revenue from add-on sales, e.g. 20% in case of Ryanair. Also note that airports are generating a large fraction of their income from their duty free shops, about 50% to 60%, 25 years ago this used to be about 30%. So, within the airline industry there is a trend toward lower income from only operating the flights and more from passengers spending money to buy stuff. It's gone so far that Ryanair thinks it can offer free of charge flights within the next 10 years.

4

Actually, contrary to a few answers here, inflight shopping is increasingly not a thing, since more and more airlines no longer find it profitable. Delta was among the first to drop it in 2014 and Qantas just followed suit:

http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-advice/flights/end-of-an-era-for-dutyfree-shopping-on-qantas-flights/news-story/e850d300f3260869e19abe6d5a4de98b

Good riddance if you ask me: having aircrew trundle through the cabin hawking overpriced perfumes on red-eye flights when everybody is trying to sleep has long been one of the more pointless annoyances of commercial aviation.

  • Qantas dropping it is in my answer too ;) Seems the internet has increased the competition too much, plus weight for the plane to carry is always at a premium. – Mark Mayo Dec 23 '17 at 4:51
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+50

Items I have personally bought from the on-board duty free:

  • Last minute gifts (especially for ladies, they have some excellent choices)
  • A multi-outlet portable plug (as I had forgot to pack my own)
  • A stuffed toy for the cute baby in the next aisle on a long haul flight that was always smiling and giggling (when not napping) - really made my day.

The best part is I used some of my miles to buy the items.

Delta and Qantas definitely are the exception. The major carriers I fly with all have an active and sometimes exclusive catalog. It no longer "As Seen on TV" and "Sharper Image" catalog.

2

There's an inflight shopping magazine in the pocket of the seat in front of you - that no one reads.

False.

The crew come through with a trolley of merchandise - that nobody buys.

Also false.

I don't know what airlines you fly, but on SWISS, easyjet, Ryanair and Wizz flight there certainly are many people buying from the onboard staff. Logically, then, it is a source of profit for the airlines, and that's why it continues to be a concept in operation.

1

When a large number of passengers are flying to a holiday destination and are in a mildly manic state, eager to have "fun", shop and wear silly sombreros, in-flight spending may be motivated by a desire to kick off the holiday NOW!

protected by Mark Mayo Nov 26 '16 at 11:51

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