(CNN Business) — At a time when land-based malls are struggling to draw shoppers, sales at shipboard stores show increasing buoyancy. Starboard Cruise Services, an LVMH-owned company that operates stores on 90+ cruise lines, is the largest retail purveyor in the cruise industry and boasts impressive growth.
According to CEO Beth Neumann, Starboard has driven a 60% increase in passenger spending on fine jewelry, Swiss watches, leather goods and beauty brands since 2013. "Cruise lines are committing more space, money and marketing behind retail these days as a reflection of its importance to guest satisfaction," she states.
"After alcohol and gambling, a cruise ship's third main source of revenue comes from consumer dollars spent onboard," according to Cruise Critic. Often strategically located nearby a ship's casino, high-end shops endeavor to harpoon big spenders as well as those on a break from sunbathing and spa treatments.
Designing onboard stores so that shopping will be experiential as well as transactional, Starboard hosts events on big ships to boost sales as people travel. For example, a Tiffany "High Tea at Sea" on World Dream introduced the brand's latest collections to cruise passengers in the Asian market. On Royal Caribbean's new Symphony of the Seas, a "Race the Clock" trivia quiz challenged passengers' knowledge of Swiss timepieces and awarded a gift to the winner.
According to Skift's "Megatrends Defining Travel in 2018" report, cruise lines are also starting to use technology to not only record what you buy but also tempt you with more: Carnival Corp's Princess ships "are being retrofitted with an Internet of Things ecosystem that tracks passengers' onboard behavior via the wearable Ocean Medallion device to create a much deeper customer profile.
Passengers can purchase products and services with the device, adding to the volume of data that Carnival collects in one integrated system, which can then be used to recommend other purchase options that align with the guest profile."
Oceans of swag
Starboard Cruise Services, which has worked with more than 750 labels, selects merchandise based on a cruise ship's "personality," its passenger profile, and itineraries. It categorizes its offerings as premier brands, discovery brands and destination brands.
Its high-end cruise line partners such as Crystal stock Cartier, Tiffany, Omega, Dior and Ferragamo goods. A discovery brand that proves all that glitters is not buried treasure, Sophia Fiori jewelry on Holland-America ships specializes in clear and colored diamonds.
Staking out a prominent spot in Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas Promenade Shops, Bvlgari displays lower-end lines, reserving its legendary "high jewelry" for land.
And there's more than bijoux aboard: At Celebrity Cruise iLounges, passengers not only have access to authorized Apple specialists, they can also purchase the tech giant's products.
While mass cruise lines no longer have formal nights, luxury liners still expect passengers to dress better than a swabbie, especially since they can outfit themselves on board. Seabourn, for example, carries a Polo Ralph Lauren shop. Cunard highlights its British heritage by featuring a Harrods outpost and stocking waxed-cotton Barbour outerwear that withstands sea spray.
Passengers on Viking Ocean Cruises itineraries may find items selected from producers in the regions where they sail. One excursion on the Viking Homeland itinerary takes passengers to a textile center where Norway's iconic woolen sweaters are woven.
Those who'd prefer to skip the tour can purchase a sweater with a pattern made exclusively for Viking onboard. Others may treat themselves with something shiny from the ship's Georg Jensen and Swarovski boutiques.
Guests who journey to Antarctica and the Arctic on the much-anticipated Scenic Eclipse will receive a complimentary polar parka that is theirs to keep. To ensure they stay warm and snuggly on the 200-passenger yacht launching in 2019, a co-branded website will make additional clothing items, such as thermal undergarments, available for purchase pre-boarding.
Treasures of smaller ships
River cruises, since they're more intimate than ocean-going behemoths, have limited retail space. Yet some still manage to carve out retail space. AmaWaterways, for example, displays pashminas and pretty pairs of earrings. Other lines offer more unique wares.
On Viking Emerald, which sails the Yangtze River, there's a pearl counter, a fully stocked teashop and a bespoke tailor. Choose one of the tailor's patterned silks, decide on whether you want a jacket, skirt or cheongsam made, allow him to measure you and a finished bespoke garment can be presented in two days.
Paul Gauguin Cruises, which ply the waters of French Polynesia, carry contemporary Tahitian black pearl jewelry by Hinerava in its boutique.
The designer sources pearls in rare colors and matches them with precious gems to create one-of-a-kind rings, cuff links, bracelets and earrings.
Duty-free rules apply to merchandise bought on a ship as well as in port. For American individuals, there's an $800 duty-free allowance. Once you reach that amount, the next $1,000 worth of goods is taxed at 3 percent. In addition to merchandise, passengers can bring back a small amount of alcohol duty-free; the amount depends on whether one sailed back from the Europe (1 liter permitted) or the Caribbean (2 liters).
"Since alcohol, cigarettes and luxury items usually carry high taxes, they are almost always cheaper when you buy them duty-free," Cruise Critic reports. "That said, the base prices are sometimes higher as a result. Your best defense? Know how much [the item] sells for at home before you buy at sea." Best buys in this category include local spirits, such as Caribbean rums. For the best price, experienced shoppers know it's wise to wait until the end of the cruise to buy onboard, when items are more likely to go on sale and discounts go deeper.