Is duty-free shopping cheaper?

We compared duty-free prices with prices from supermarkets and department stores.

Airport with duty-free store.

Picking up a few bottles of duty-free wine or perfume at the airport is a ritual for many overseas travellers. But is it possible to find a better deal at your local shops and supermarkets?

We took advertised prices for more than 30 items, from chocolates to high-end electronics, from the websites of three duty-free retailers and compared them with online prices from supermarkets, department stores and other retailers (all of which paid relevant import duty and GST).

Confectionery

Unless your goal is using up the last few foreign dollars from your trip, there’s not much value in buying confectionery at duty-free stores. Chocolate products can cost several times the price your local supermarket or big box retailer charges.

A Toblerone Gold bar cost $16 at duty free and $11.50 at Kmart.

The latter stores had better prices for each of the seven chocolate items in our survey. You could save yourself nearly half the sticker price by forgoing a 750g pack of UK-made Quality Street chocolate at the airport and picking up a few smaller packs from The Warehouse.

Duty-free outlets were also hawking New Zealand-made chocolate, such as Whittaker’s, which isn’t subject to import duty. Whittaker’s Hawke’s Bay Black Doris Plum and Roasted Almond chocolate blocks cost $6.99 at The Loop Duty Free. You could pick up the same block from a nearby supermarket for $3.99.

The Commerce Commission says duty-free stores need to highlight the products they sell that aren’t subject to duty. We saw nothing prominent alerting customers to this information on the stores’ websites.

Cosmetics and fragrances

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Electronics

Alcohol

Online shopping

Prices compared

Fair trading rules

The Commerce Commission says consumers have the right to assume duty-free items are cheaper than those sold by other retailers.

It says “businesses should only use the term if the goods described as duty-free would usually attract import duty, and the price advantage is passed on to the consumer”.

JR Duty Free executive general manager Stephen Timms says his company prices cosmetics and fragrances about 20 percent under the New Zealand recommended retail price.

However, our price checks showed confectionery products carried inflated prices in duty-free stores.

Mr Timms says the food items his company sells provide convenience to travellers, rather than value. Some may be manufactured in a different country from the items sold in supermarkets.

The commission also warns against promoting “duty-free” goods when no import duty would apply (for example, because they are made in New Zealand). It says duty-free stores must “clearly identify” items of this sort.

We didn’t find any New Zealand-made items sold by duty-free retailers using such a disclaimer.

Mr Timms says JR Duty Free does not highlight products not subject to duty. “We have determined there are no specific regulations pertaining to duty-free and the commission [advice] relating to duty-free and non-duty-free is a general guideline only.”

In Aelia Duty Free’s frequently asked questions, there’s a note explaining goods made in New Zealand do not attract import duty, but we don’t believe this is clear identification – there’s nothing on the descriptions of the products themselves.

The Loop Duty Free says it regularly assesses its prices against those of other retailers and believes it fully complies with fair trading laws. A spokesperson says “However, in the interests of additional clarity and to further reduce the possibility of consumer confusion, we will highlight on shelf that any New Zealand-produced goods are tax free.”

We’ve laid a complaint with the commission about the pricing of confectionery and the lack of disclaimers on New Zealand-made goods, which in our opinion risk breaching the Fair Trading Act.

Making allowances

Travellers entering New Zealand can bring the following into the country, without paying duty and GST:

  • Alcohol: 4.5L of wine or beer. In addition, 3 bottles of spirits or liqueur (totalling up to 1.125L)
  • Cigarettes and tobacco: 50 cigarettes or 50g of tobacco
  • Personal items: Goods to the value of $700.

This $700 personal items limit hasn’t changed since 1990. Back then travellers could import the equivalent of goods worth $1174 in today’s prices without paying duty.

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