Since Simon Calder, the travel editor of The Independent, published a piece last Friday (6 August) entitled 'Airport VAT scam: Nice little earner at travellers' expense', the issue has been on the front page of national newspapers on numerous days and attracted the attention of treasury minister David Gauke.
The issue concerns travellers flying from UK airports to non-EU destinations, who do not have to pay VAT on products bought in airport shops. Many airport retailers ask all passengers for boarding passes in order to find out which customers these are – some incorrectly claiming this is "for security reasons" – but research by The Independent claims that in many cases shops were passing little or none of the VAT saving on to customers. Boots, WHSmith, Dixons and a variety of other retailers have come under the media glare.
Liz Cartwright, MD at Cartwright Communications, said: "Nottingham-based Boots is leading the way here, having already come out to say it is reviewing its policies and will potentially pass on savings to its customers – though the form this will take is not yet confirmed.
"What the other major brands trading at airports really need to do now is follow suit – hold their hands up and be honest with customers about what action they are going to take."
She added that while the retailers in question had not been doing anything illegal, the public was "rightly disgruntled by the news, and it is essential that brands act now to rebuild trust with their customers".
James Gordon-MacIntosh, managing partner of Hope&Glory, said that retailers had had plenty of time to prepare responses between Calder's initial feature and the topic hitting the broader press. "The fact that so many retailers appear to have been caught on the hop and somewhat underprepared when the mainstream caught up is the first thing that stands out," he said.
He also said he was surprised that no shops had decided to "take a consumer champion lead and to commit to returning some of the VAT to travellers". But he also said: "Those who have responded have been pretty anodyne, if straight-down-the-line, with the most positive and proactive stance from Boots saying it'll stop asking for boarding cards henceforth.
"All things considered, and given that retail as a category is normally first to take a pro-consumer stance, it seems the big names have been forced on to the back foot with this one."