Experiencing the world’s first run-through duty free store

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Sometimes I cut things just a little too close for comfort…

I’m 10,058 meters above the Pacific, flying high over Kribati. We’re travelling at 915k per hour, so, in fact, by the time I finish this paragraph Kribati will already be well behind me. Strange, the equatorial Pacific republic is somewhere I always wanted to visit, but I’m not sure an overhead tour exactly qualifies.

According to the onscreen flight map, it’s 20.37 at Melbourne Airport from whence I departed; and 08.11 in Los Angeles, where I am headed.

This rather concerns me as according to the print-out from my trusty travel agent Phil Burdekin* at Flight Centre, I’m due to land in Los Angeles at 09.00. And yet there’s an awful lot of blue on the onscreen flight map, suggesting that Kribati is rather closer to the equator than it is to the Californian coastline, which should be coming up in 49 minutes. I suppose I should ask the pilot to speed up but as we’re now flying at 918km per hour (we’ve obviously caught the legendary, albeit gentle, Kribati tailwind) I’m not sure that’s wise.

One or other source is clearly wrong. If it’s Phil, all my hopes of a post-arrival morning snooze to overcome the jet lag before my late afternoon meeting have been dashed. I shall just have to order another glass of the rather nice Clare Valley Riesling (alas I don’t know the label) they have onboard Virgin Australia and plough on with a few hours work before landing.

Not that I should be complaining about a late arrival to LAX. You see, I am lucky to be landing there at all. After an excellent dinner last night with the Dufry and Melbourne Airport management at the superb Florentino restaurant, I woke early to file my report and my Blog on the ‘New Generation’ store opening.

Easier said than done, by the way, on the road. There are dozens of pictures to load, videos to imbed, podcasts to place and, of course, some hopefully sensible words to write. I duly sent off the video and the podcasts to my London colleagues after I got back from dinner and left the words to the morning, before grabbing a few hours of much-needed sleep.

An early start and all was going well. The podcasts and video (loaded neatly onto our YouTube channel) had been done overnight; it was now just a matter of writing the words and sizing and placing the pictures. A 6a.m. start with a 13.30 departure from Melbourne Airport looked comfortable. Plenty of time later in the morning to take a more relaxed look at the new Dufry store.

Comfortable, that is, without technical hitches. My laptop, quite understandably considering how much I punish it, decides to behave like an enfant terrible. Pictures won’t load, Microsoft word keeps crashing… it is just one of those mornings. Still, if I leave by 10.30 latest, I can get a good look at the shop, right?

Wrong. About an hour from completion – writing and loading pictures for the report and the Blog simultaneously – I notice my laptop battery warning. “You have 7% battery power remaining.” How can that be? I have my trusty travel adaptor plugged in. But for some reason it’s not powering the laptop.

I double-check it. The adaptor has blown up. I call reception and ask for an adaptor. It is now past 10.30 and I’m far from done. But I must file the story before I fly.

New adaptor duly delivered, I press on. I call reception. What time is check-out. “11a.m. Sir.”

“Can I have till 12?”

“Sorry Sir, we’re fully booked.”

“11.30?” I ask hopefully.

“Yes Sir, 11.30 will be fine.”

An 11.30 check-out, a 13.30 flight. That store visit is going to be more compressed than I would like. Every picture seems to take an age to load, some need cropping, the laptop freezes again. I utilise words that would make an Aussie bushranger blush.

Finally, I’m done. Not perfect but pretty good in the circumstances. A summing up of the opening; my own original video shot on my trusty Panasonic point and shoot camera; two podcasts; numerous photos; and a Blog on top of the main story. I look at my watch. It’s 11.40. 11.40!!!!!

Job done but now there’s a flight to catch

Rush downstairs, approve the bill without looking, dash to cab. “Melbourne Airport please, international departures!”

Many readers will know that Jekyll and Hyde feeling of the last-minute scramble to the airport. At least you’re in the cab and you haven’t forgotten your passport (though god knows what you have left behind in the room) but equally you know that you still must get through check-in and security and then find your way to the gate.

Melbourne traffic can be tricky at the best of times. Without trying to sound too Dickensian, these weren’t the best of times. In fact, they were the worst of times. My friendly Ethiopian cabbie does his best but it is after 12.30 by the time I get to the Virgin desk.

All seems fine at first. I have travelled in on my Kiwi passport but will be entering the US on my British one, as the latter has an up-to-date ESTA.

“Where are you staying in the US, Sir?”

“Um…. the LAX Hilton, I believe.”

“We’ll need to confirm that and the street address Sir.”

“I don’t have it to hand… let me check on my phone.” My phone’s e-mail won’t work, and the airport Wi-Fi won’t load.

“Sorry Sir, but we’ll need the street address.”

I take out my laptop while the very helpful check-in assistant says she will try to process it merely with the hotel name. She’s been dealing with stressed people like me all morning and is brisk efficiency personified.

“I’m sorry Sir,” there’s a problem. “I can’t clear you to fly.”

“What do you mean? My ESTA is up to date, we checked it last week.”

“I know Sir, but the system won’t clear it. There seems to be a problem. I’m sorry, you can’t get on this flight. And you’re very late.”

My pleading look, part Basil Fawlty when his car wouldn’t start, part desperate street urchin, seems to strike a chord. My potential savior and her supervisor who has arrived tap away feverishly at a keyboard; the latter makes a call.

“Just one bag?” the supervisor asks.

“Yes,” I reply euphorically, realising that’s the cue to me being allowed to board.

“I advise you to get here earlier next time Sir,” the supervisor says sternly. She smiles at me and says, “Have a good flight.” I suspect she’s probably thinking, “You chump.”

“If I were you, I would get straight to the gate,” she says kindly, waving me on the way.

Into security. Not too bad but about 12 people in front of me. Please Lord don’t put me through a secondary search. At least I categorically know that I don’t have any hair shampoo in my bag as, remarkably, the lady in front of me has. What, she was going to wash her hair inflight?

Security done, onto immigration. Me, a well-seasoned traveller, stressed beyond belief. The friendly officer practically waves me through but I’m still a serious distance from Gate 20. Those of you who know Melbourne Airport will know that Gate 20 is practically in Perth.

I really had wanted to spend a couple of hours in the Dufry store, reviewing it at leisure and most definitely buying some good Australian wine. Review it? I turn it into the world’s first run-through duty free store. But to my eternal credit, I think, I manage to snap a few pictures on the hoof (below). If they’re a little more blurred than usual, you’ll understand why.

I may have been running but I still noticed the Chinese language on the giant digital wraparound screen

As I near Gate 20, I spy a reassuringly large crowd. They haven’t even started boarding. The thought of a cold glass of Champers on the plane, a couple of hours kip and then a relaxed working day onboard with no e-mails coming in, makes all the stress evaporate.

For about six and a half seconds. Suddenly I remember my blown-up charger. And my near flat laptop battery. And a 14-hour flight to LAX. Sad person that I might be, there is no way that I can lose all that time onboard. What, watch movies? Enjoy myself? Sleep? Really?

I’m a long way from the main retail offer. Do I have time to rush back to duty free to buy a charger? I decide to try my luck. And then, almost immediately, I spot a WHSmith last-minute store. I feel like a parched man, stranded in the desert for two weeks, who has suddenly stumbled into a Heineken bar.

It is a very small shop. “Do you sell adaptors?” I ask the charming young woman behind the counter.

“We certainly do,” she replies with a smile. “Where are you travelling to?”

“The US,” I reply, “but I need one for onboard as well. Do you have one of those universal adaptors?”

“Not in this store. We do have them in the main store. If you go back there they will sell you one.”

“How far is it?”

“About a five-minute walk.”

“Yikes, no, I haven’t got time,” I say, conscious of exactly how popular I will be with the Virgin crew if I hold up the flight due to some retail therapy after being the last passenger to check in. “Is there any way you could get one sent up to this store?”

“Let me try.” The assistant, named Felicity, duly calls up her colleague at the main store. “No worries, it’ll be here in 5 minutes,” she smiles.

“Wow, thank you,” I say, “Tell you what, I’ll buy the US one now and if they haven’t finished boarding I’ll buy the universal one too when it arrives.”

Felicity makes the transaction. And get this. She even says she will refund the US adaptor charge if I end up buying the universal version.

I duck back around the corner to see how the processing of VA023 to Los Angeles is going. Business class is all onboard and now economy passengers are boarding.

I hover uneasily somewhere equidistant between a viewing position of the queue and the WHSmith store. They’re down to the last couple of dozen or so passengers. Nervously I edge back towards Felicity, hoping against hope that her colleague will arrive imminently.

“Here she comes,” beams Felicity, nodding towards a colleague descending the elevator carrying a small but, to me, crucially important package.

It is a Go Travel AU/NZ Worldwide adaptor system. I beam at Felicity and her fellow savior, Brittany. They are both delightful young women and pleased to help. Wow, what a team. My time is nearly up so I pay for the universal system and keep the US adaptor.

“Are you sure?” asks Felicity. “It’s no problem to refund the other item.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say, “I have to board.” Goods procured, I thank Felicity and Brittany profusely and ask to take their photo for my Blog. Remember they have no idea whatsoever who I am, other than a dithering traveller who has redefined the concept of a last-minute shop into a last-second one.

Last-minute lifesavers: Felicity (left) and Brittany, the dynamic WHSmith duo

Doing the closest impression I can manage these days of bursting into a sprint, I bolt (not quite Usain) for my plane. I am, not for the first time (nor, I suspect, the last) the final person onboard.

As I collapse into my seat and order a glass of sparkling Aussie wine to relieve the stress, I study the impressive Go Travel adaptor pack. “Converts Australian/New Zealand plugs to fit sockets worldwide,” it says.

Ah… but I have a UK plug. Houston, or at least Melbourne to LAX, we have a problem…

But, in fact, we don’t. I lift the lid to the power charge compartment by my seat. It is a three-point (UK-style) plug system. I don’t need an adaptor at all.

Does that worry me? Not a jot. Yes, I have wasted nearly A$100. But, hey, I have raised WHSmith’s average transaction value and, more importantly, discovered – not for the first time – the wonderful difference that human beings can make to the shopping experience in a digitally dominated age. I salute Felicity and Brittany, two unsung heroines who tell us that the future of travel retail, while leaning to the digital, will always remain deeply personal.

*Footnote: Phil Burdekin, I slandered you. The seatback screen reading has been corrected. I am 4 hours and 30 minutes out of LAX and it is currently 4.14 a.m. there. I do believe that I will arrive in time for breakfast, on the same day but nearly five hours earlier than when I left Australia. I’m starting to feel like the Benjamin Button of travel retail.

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