Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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