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Big Ticket Shopping In The Caribbean

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Duty Free!! We see those words and it’s like our minds shout BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! It’s as though we only see the word free.

For some odd reason, this holds even more true when cruisers disembark from their ships on islands in the Caribbean.

In fact, the only thing “duty free” means is there are no government duties (importing fees) on the goods in question. It in no way implies that the duty free vendors are obligated to charge you a lower markup on goods they are selling. It in no way restricts their ability to charge you as high a price as they think you will willingly part with to purchase that product.

In regard to duty free shopping in the Caribbean, reputation seems to be the driving force for shoppers.

15 – 20 years ago, prior to the real onslaught of cruise ships dropping up to 10 or 12 thousand passengers, almost daily, into only slightly developed ports, there was indeed a bit of a shopping mecca in some of the Caribbean islands. Today, on high ticket items (such as jewelery, and high end watches) the reputation far outweighs the reality.

There are still savings available during your port visits in the Caribbean; most notably on items such as liquor, cigarettes, occassionally on perfumes, as well as locally made souvenirs. For example Rums are a significant export product for several Caribbean islands. When purchasing those in the location they are being produced, you can benefit from the lack of duties and taxes the manufacturers must pay when exporting, as well as the transportation costs. In those cases the manufacturers are more than willing to pass on those savings to consumers, and it seems, so are many of the retailers. Yet, even on those less significant expenditures one should know the price of the product, in their hometowns, that they might consider purchasing in port.

In the “early days” in most ports in the Caribbean there were not that many jewelery stores, watch stores, or electronic stores. And those that were there, were mostly independant owner operated stores. In many cases the small size of the local population made competition quite stiff.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when some of these ports would see only 5 or 6 cruise ship visits in a week. The retailers viewed these short term visitors as a bonanza; short term opportunities to increase their sales. They were willing to negotiate to some very low profit levels to make sales, at the same time knowing they weren’t going to have to worry about offering the same pricing to local residents, who might spread the word about the low pricing. That would have created more competition with others in the same business, so they would all be lowering pricing and margins to draw in the local resident business, which at the time was the year round “bread and butter” of their business.

Today, the opposite situation is true. With an abundance of ships visiting these “shopping meccas” day after day, dropping a considerable number of prospective passengers “at their door” every week, the prices drop on these goods, in the evening, after the ships have sailed. The locals knows it, and even visitors to the island who are staying more than a few hours, get to understand this pretty quickly.

As the number of cruise ship visits grew by leaps and bounds, so did the attraction for the large players in the retail industry; chain stores. While there are still a few independants operating on certain islands, most of the stores in good locations have been bought out and turned into another outlet for a “chain”. For example, walk along a main shopping street in any Caribbean port and you can see “Diamonds International” stores on almost every block.

Ocassionally the store names may be slightly different, but look into it further and you’re likely to find they are owned by one company, or are a subsidiary. Interestingly, the head offices of some of these chains are located in the United States.

Contributing to some of the confusion of Caribbean shopping is the cruise lines listing and promoting of their “recommended stores”.  Years ago, old time Cruise Directors would supplement their income, by accepting renumeration from shop owners for recommending their shops to passengers. In fact, you would often see the Cruise Directors in these shops; they weren’t shopping; they were collecting.

Once the cruise lines became aware of the fees available to them, they took over the “business” or recommending stores. If you ask directly, they will tell you they are paid a promotional fee . That’s fine, since they admit to the practice, and there’s certainly nothing illegal about doing so.

Passengers should simply understand these stores are not being recommended because they are known to offer exceptional bargains to cruise customers.

Even though I have described the Caribbean shopping experience from a skeptical point of view, I am not claiming that one can not score a great deal on some high ticket items. And, if you make such a purchase and end up happy with the piece, you were obviously satisfied with the price because you completed the purchase, then simply enjoy it.

For those considering such a purchase on an upcoming cruise, I simply urge you to educate yourself, as much as possible, before you go, and have a least a basic understanding of pricing on articles you might considering trying to purchase. Don’t do it simply because “you’ve heard” there are “great deals” available in the Caribbean. It is, as said earlier, an old reputation.

Do you have stories to share about  great deals you’ve been happy with from purchases you made on a cruise? Or do you have some purchases that were less than what you expected? Feel free to share your experiences.

– A View From The Kuki Side Of Cruising –



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Comment from jammy sharma
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:12 am

I love Caribbean it is indeed a lovely part of the world! It is flooded with beauty. I am coming to shop in Caribbean.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time September 5, 2012 at 5:36 am

One major concern for owners of the “duty free shops” in the Caribbean is stiff competition from QVC, shop NBC and other on air TV outlets. These cable stores very often do have far better prices, especially with jewelry items. These “TV” outlets, and the sale of tanzanite when mined and the money used to support terrorism abroad, have nearly killed the tanzanite frenzy. Without naming names, would anyone with a brain shell out big bucks on a third world island nation for “the” diamond – the must have gift from a cruise? Hey, that Rolex, was it really registered with the rolex Co.?
Oprah was touting Phuilip Stens about 10 years ago, never heard of them before, so, we spent over two thousand $ on two very nice PS’s, registred them for the guarantee, to find out, they wer real PS’s, BUT – the registy never made it to Philip Stein. Needless to say, PS has honored the authenticity of the watches, but won’t pay for the batterys, copper inside “washers” or replacement bands. And, they are also much cheaper now on QVC etc…..

People are gulible, often trusting and stupid, I for one rely on my prefered jeweler(s) at home. Years ago, as pointed out, yes, shopping was cheaper in the islands.

Over the over 40 years that I have been cruising to the Carbbean shops have changed, many disapperared, to be replaced by crappy shops, which sell gold nearly the color of a tangerine, ugly by Western standards, and the high tech shops? Better off at Costco.

However, if it looks like a bargain, buy it. If it will make you happy, buy it, as it is a personal choice, nobody is forcing a sale on you

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time September 7, 2012 at 8:21 am

So, are there really any true “buys” in the Carbibbean? Yes, Lalique for one.Notably in St. Thomas and St. Kitts. Barbados sells junk at the dock in a large “mall”. Forget it. Not the bargain spot of yore, St. Thomas still has some nice shops, downtown – Havensight Mall is ok, not much selection.

Once “Little Switzerland” offered fine china and crystal and since being purchased by Tiffany and Company, that has lessened.

Duty free liquor still great deals, but who really wants to drag the boxes around, AND pay $$$$ on the plane, as this accounts for checked item.

We do have ONE fav jeweler, have purchased there for over 40 years – my secret.

Comment from spain villa
Time November 11, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Nice post. Big ticket shopping in Caribbean is a task in which you have to bargain for a pretty big discount…….

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