Menus Subscribe Search
shoppers-babel

The Dubai International Airport.

The Shoppers of Babel

• May 09, 2013 • 4:00 AM

The Dubai International Airport.

Inside the most lucrative and perhaps most sophisticated duty-free shop on Earth.

We live in a world of global brands but local tastes. Arabs tend to drink their tea slowly; Indians load theirs with spices and sugar. So Lipton ships a different optimized formula to each, under its standard yellow label. The Earth may seem united by loyalty to Coca-Cola, but Coke famously tailors sweetness to different regions. The world of consumption is still a Balkanized place.

If you want to see these divergent proclivities in all their finely segmented glory, spend some time at the Dubai International Airport. The world’s third busiest air hub, Dubai boasts the most lucrative and perhaps most sophisticated duty-free shop on Earth. Its total retail space is more than one and a half times the size of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and its sales reached $1.6 billion in 2012. With its constantly circulating clientele, Dubai Duty Free is the global retail market collapsed into a few sleek airport terminals.

Dubai Duty Free hangs its name on luxury goods, but two of the retailer’s biggest selling items are Nestlé powdered milk and Tang.

THE GOLD NONSTANDARD
One of Dubai Duty Free’s biggest sellers is gold. Finely worked 18-karat necklaces and bracelets gleam in the retailer’s display cases, meant to lure Europeans, East Asians, and Americans. But Indians—the world’s largest consumers of the metal—disdain the 18-karat kind. At Dubai Duty Free, they pretty much exclusively buy 22-karat gold, often in the form of bricks.

NOT BLING, BUT TANG
Dubai Duty Free hangs its name on luxury goods, but two of the retailer’s biggest selling items are Nestlé powdered milk and Tang, the orange drink mix. How big? In 2012, the airport sold 1,417 metric tons of Tang. The two powdered mixes are sold mostly to South Asian laborers flying home from Persian Gulf work sites.

THE CHINA SYNDROME
Chinese travelers make up just four percent of the Dubai airport’s total traffic, but 12 percent of Dubai Duty Free’s sales. That’s because luxury products like high-end liquor, watches, and perfumes are still relatively expensive in China. In response, Dubai Duty Free has recruited 573 Chinese salespeople, dispensed Chinese phrase books to everyone else, and started accepting China’s most popular credit card.

CONTACT BUY
On a special first-class-only floor in the airport, Dubai Duty Free markets a $200,000 bottle of whiskey called Royal Salute Tribute to Honor. The bottles don’t exactly fly off the shelves, but the liquor creates a “halo effect” for the shop: business elites are more likely to break out their wallets in the presence of aspirational goods.

HERSHEY’S MISS
Americans love Hershey’s chocolate, but most of the rest of the world finds it horrid. Nonetheless, the airport retailer markets Hershey’s in large displays, even though few Americans pass through Dubai. Why? According to journalist Kristoffer Garin, the target audience is Filipinos; they developed a taste for the stuff under American occupation in the early 20th century.

John Gravois

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.