Catching a Flight? Don’t Forget Your Duty Free

Holidays – what’s not to love? You’re all set to go – cases packed – check, passports – check, tickets – check. But have you readied yourself for Duty Free?

The UK duty free market is forecast to grow by 4.6% per annum and the airports want your hard earned cash.

Last week i was catching a flight and thinking how science has made it easier than ever to travel thousands of miles – from the computers used to book flights and reserve car parking to the technology of getting a plane airbourne, upto 39000 feet and safely landed.

But I also started to consider a shorter stage of the journey where science is less obviously hard at work – the science of consumer psychology and the 200m journey through the duty free area at the airport.

At airports, many of us are tempted by the lure of duty free purchases – even when they are travelling to other EU countries and there are no duty free benefits.

So I started to ask myself why is this?

Manchester airport duty free provided an opportunity to evaluate some of the ways in which psychological theory and research is being applied to encourage passengers to begin their journey with a purchase.

We use our senses to perceive our environment and make decisions on how to respond.

Approaching duty free, a number of possible routes into the area are possible but the prominent position of the yellow information signs to the left, staggered red boxes to the right and the prominent, full length, illuminated panel are strong visual cues and draw passengers attention to enter via the left hand side of the duty free area.


Highly visible discount signs hanging just above eye level stretch into the distance, proclaiming discounts compared with high street prices.


Approaching closer also reveals a second sensory cue affecting the environment – the up tempo sound of The Supremes singing the You Can’t Hurry Love. This familiar music evokes memories that have the potential to cause arouse emotions (Gorn, 1982), helping to start to switch attention from the impending flight.

The same music is not being played throughout the area – a few steps on introduces a different song Diamond by Izzy Bizu. By comparison with the 97 beats per minute (BPM) of The Supremes, Diamond has a far slower tempo of 66 BPM.

Research has shown that playing music that people like can influence product choice (Gorn, 1982). In addition tests in a US supermarket found that the pace of in store traffic flow was significantly slower with the slow tempo music than for faster tempo music (Robert Milliman, 1982).

The floor to the left hand side features a defined ‘path’ that flows through the duty free area – but rather than taking the most direct route, this turns and wends, influencing the path of passengers.


Positioned at staggered intervals are columns. Of course, columns are necessary to support the roof, however these columns are faced with mirrors and angled at 45 degrees to the oncoming flow of people. This results in passengers seeing reflections of products from the fittings on either side rather than themselves in the mirrors. More visual cues designed to gain attention and distract passengers from their route to the departure lounge areas.


Glancing back, it was also apparent that the column layout was configured in such a way that there was no clear path back, in contrast with the clear route into the areas provided by the earlier visual cues.


Progressing further, one column in particular stood out. Unlike the others, this displayed flight departure information – timings, gates and flight numbers. This salient information caused people to pause in front of it to check the latest information about their flight.


Immediately after this sign, the path swung to the right and to the left, passengers were exposed to a large multi screen wall display. This cycles through a series of short advertisements for expensive mens and womens fragrances  (Dior) and information videos. Many of these featured scenes designed to arouse – people kissing (video below) and provocatively posed women (image below). The choice of music in these areas is also important as research has shown that the music and fragrance should be congruent – 



Research has shown that womens attitudes towards the use of sexual images to promote a product are less negative for expensive products compared with cheap ones (Vohs, 2014).

By gaining the attention of passengers, causing them to halt to check the flight information and then immediately presenting a large screen showing videos of attractive male and female models, the design layout is making use of environmental cues to influence where we focus our attention and appeal to our senses, emotions and memories.

The question has been posed whether the consumer world pays attention to scientific evidence. From the use of environmental cues to attract passengers attention through their senses and influence behaviours to the choice of videos, these examples suggest that in the case of duty free shopping at Manchester Airport, the answer is yes.

What is the best application you have seen of consumer psychology in a retail environment?


Gorn, Gerald J. “The effects of music in advertising on choice behavior: A classical conditioning approach.” The Journal of Marketing (1982): 94-101.

Milliman, Ronald E. “Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers.” The journal of Marketing (1982): 86-91.

Vohs, Kathleen D., Jaideep Sengupta, and Darren W. Dahl. “The Price Had Better Be Right Women’s Reactions to Sexual Stimuli Vary With Market Factors.” Psychological science (2013): 0956797613502732.

Mattila, Anna S., and Jochen Wirtz. “Congruency of Scent and Music as a Driver of In-Store Evaluations and Behavior.” (2003).

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