People aren’t spending at duty-free stores like they used to

But do I need it?
But do I need it?
Image: Reuters/Michael Dalde
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Duty-free retailers have bulked up their footprints in airports around the world—but they’re now struggling to get travelers to spend more money.

Sales of duty-free retail goods fell more than 2% last year from 2014, marking the first year-over-year decline since 2009, according to data recently published by the Tax Free World Association, a trade group.

The decline makes that pillar of airport commerce the latest corner of ailing brick-and-mortar retail to stumble.

Shoppers last year shelled out more than $62 billion on duty-free goods, which are imported but exempt from customs duties usually charged for bringing them across a border. While that was a decrease of just over 2% from the prior year, growth in duty-free and travel retail has slowed since 2011.

Last year’s drop wasn’t because consumers just soured on Toblerone chocolate bars, though confectionary and fine foods sales dropped 4%. They spent much less on watches and jewelry, with sales in that category tumbling more than 13.2% from 2014.

The organization chalked up the drop to economic and currency volatility as well as terrorism and geo-political issues.

There were a few bright spots. Fragrances and cosmetics sales rose more than 2% to $19.5 billion, for example. The trade group also pointed out a “much rosier” picture in Asia, citing an “impressive” 8.5% increase in tobacco sales.

Even though many duty-free shops have captive audiences with travelers waiting to board their flights, long security lines may not leave them with much time to browse.