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Uncle Sam made me turn to drink

A US customs stop give me the chance to reflect on the world of duty-free bustling somewhere above me in the building

Kevin Vyse KBV Consultants / Institute of Packaging Professionals UK

I had occasion to need a stiff drink the other day. After years of travelling to and from the USA to meet with clients on an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) the US Boarder Agency decided in Detroit that I am no longer admissible to the USA and, therefore, pose a 'risk'.
For once, the customs post was empty and I sailed through to the desk. It was then that it started…

First, an inquisition from the customs officer, then off to an interview room straight out of the movies. A sworn testimony, fingerprinting and photos followed, then a nine-hour wait in a room less glamorous than that of a typical job centre. Finally, a return flight of eight hours back to 'blighty' where I am told I can apply for a fast track visa for a thousand bucks.

This customs stop over did, however, give me the chance to reflect on the world of duty-free bustling somewhere above me in the building.

The duty-free industry has taken much of the lead in stimulating packaging design, especially for the drinks industry. The fabulous ranges of vodka and gin and the ever increasing ranges of whisky packaging is a little like porn for pack designers. This coupled with a new generation of wine bottle designs specifically for this sector continues to inspire and allow designers to fully explore their talents with a clients blessing.

For the consumers, typically, a 1litre bottle provides every incentive to buy as they fly. But ask the question why? What is their true purchase intent? If it is about getting a bargain (as is still commonly thought) then why do the brands take extra effort with the pack design? Conversely, if it is as a gift then why don't we see these 'designed for duty-free' packs in high street retailer outlets more often?

I'm sure the strategy is different for each brand but there is no denying that duty-free is, of course, a fabulous revenue earner and buying at duty-free counters is bound up in the thrill of the trip, the big adventure.  What then prevents the extra thrill and theatre being translated to non duty-free retail opportunities?

This then leads to my main point and that is about the future of retail. Just how long will the main high street retailers be able to hang on to their beers wines and spirits monopoly?  In a new retail age where brands need to maximise their margins, we will see greater use of the internet to order product, and could well see venues that become more akin to the off-licence shops of old where brands create experiences that promote both brand and product using some of the fabulous work we see today in duty-free.

If I'm right, then we could see another flourishing of great spirit and wine design not far around the corner.

A big thank you to US Homeland Security for giving me the time to think about this!


Kevin Vyse
Institute of Packaging Professionals UK -
Twitter: #kbvconsultants  #IoPP_Pros

6 May 2013