And impressive it is, too. Going shopping "airside" is not your normal Saturday shopping experience, since you need an air ticket, a passport and a once-over by security to reach it. But when you get through, the scene is comfortably reassuring - big, bright, busy, and indistinguishable from a hundred other shopping malls. With barely a plane to be seen, the main clue that this is an airport is the low price of cigarettes. Airside has long been an over-indulger's paradise. Since the first duty-free shop opened in Shannon in the west of Ireland to cater for transatlantic travellers, the smoking, drinking, perfume-splashing passenger has been able to fill those long operational delays with cut-price shopping. From Biggin Hill to Buenos Aires and Stansted to Sydney, the shopping flyer (or should that be the flying shopper?) is bombarded with opportunities.
Shannon's duty-free is still there, selling Bailey's Irish Cream by the crate to bleary-eyed Russians; Aeroflot's planes are among the few that still need to refuel for the transatlantic hop. But at Britain's airports, targeting the bargain-hunting shopper has become an exercise in retailing science. The marketing begins on the tube or train to the airport, with reminders about how much you can save compared with the High Street price. And in case you miss all the chances to buy before you fly, the airline is sure to wheel the trolley down the aircraft aisle with all those untaxed goodies. Airtours, Britain's second-biggest tour operator, is even offering pre-purchase of duty-frees: book your bottle of scent when you reserve your fortnight in the sun.
The eagerness of airports and airlines is all to do with the huge profits to be made. Stripped of duty, the base price of a carton of 200 cigarettes is around pounds 3. Sell them for pounds 13, and the punter still makes an unhealthy saving on the normal price, while you make a killing - and none of those troublesome health warnings, either.
But Brussels is looming on the horizon. EU legislation should see the ending of duty-free concessions within Europe by the end of the century, and with it the whirl of windfall profits. So Sir John and his retailing organisation - sorry, airport operating company - aims to diversify the shopping mix, away from the traditional booze'n'fags beano towards more mainstream retailers. At Terminal One, you can buy boots from Clarks and Clorets from Boots. Selfridges competes with Liberty and The Scotch House (selling clothing, not whisky, though if you want the latter then Whiskies of the World is the newly opened place for you, with 240 varieties). There's also a new "Beauty Centre", for pre-flight pedicures. It all adds to the choice for the traveller with time and money to spare. For those of us late for the Frankfurt flight, the retail arena may seem another hurdle to leap. But Sir John says the new shops are a boon rather than an impediment for the business traveller. "We've given the businessman his Saturday morning back. He can buy his shirts and his shoes and his ties here, and not have to waste his time on Saturday morning going to the High Street."
The High Street could also lose out if local people start regarding airports as out-of-town shopping malls, and switch their custom to the ever-increasing number of shops "landside" (i e before passport control). But attracting people to these stores is a trickier proposition, and not just because duty and VAT are levied. Why battle with suitcase-brandishing travellers when all you want is a quiet Monday morning shop? Why pay the high rates charged for airport car parks? And why risk the onset of envy as you realise that all these people are heading for Kampala or Kiev while your next trip is back to the kitchen?
My experiment to see if I could shop sensibly at Heathrow was not a huge success. To try to buy your essentials at the airport is a bit like going shopping in Moscow used to be: a retail lottery that you always seem to lose. The only part of the airport with anything like the range of "normal" shops is the first-floor corridor between Terminals One and Two. Besides a dry-cleaners and a closed-down branch of Magicuts, the thinly stocked Circle C minimarket is the closest you get to real retailing life. This week's bargain is Yeoman lager at 44p a can - undercutting the cheapest beer in duty-free, but not quite an enticement to abandon Hounslow High Street. Yet perhaps the peculiar attraction that airports hold will help Sir John's mission : you can't go plane-spotting at the average Arndale Centre.
WILL HEATHROW TEMPT THE SHOPPERS OF HOUNSLOW AWAY FROM THE HIGH STREET?
"I wouldn't have thought the airport's got much to offer in terms of shopping facilities. If it had something Hounslow hasn't got, like a really fabulous supermarket, then yes I would probably go there."
"No, I wouldn't go there, no. We've always shopped here, it's just convenient. At the moment it'd be hard to get anyone to come here [the high street's being dug up], but when it's all sorted out it'll be good."
"The shopping facilities here are excellent, but at the airport not everything is available. And here in Hounslow the market means there's so much competition that prices are low."
"I'm an air hostess so I'm at the airport many times, and I don't think the shopping is as good as it is here. I sometimes go shopping at Heathrow, but the choice is better here. The best place in the world for shopping is the States, it's much cheaper than England."Reuse content