DUTY-FREE SHOPS ARE NOT FREE

European travelers still love to buy liquor, cigarettes and perfume at airport duty-free shops. They feel they're saving money.

But not merely do prices at the duty-free shops vary sharply from country to country, quite frequently the actual savings may either be negligible or indeed illusory.A survey just published by the Brussels-based BEUC (European Bureau of ConsumersUnion)shows how different airport prices in Western Europe are. The ''savvy" traveler, it would appear, ought to carefully study price structures before setting out on his journey.

In some cases, for instance, he will do well to make his purchases as he leaves rather than before he gets back to his own country. A Netherlands tourist on his way to Vienna, for example, would be well advised to stock up on tobacco and alcohol in Amsterdam instead of waiting until he departs from the Austrian capital on his way home.

The BEUC survey, the organization's second, comes at a time when the European Community Commission once again ponders the elimination of duty-free privileges for flights between EC airports.

The rationale of this effort is, of course, that such privileges are not compatible with the "single market" concept. Just as obviously there is highly vocal opposition from the airports of which many depend heavily on the revenue generated in one way or another by duty-free shops.

It also is probably because operating costs of those shops vary so much

from country to country that the prices they change do that, too. Most expensive in Dublin liquor prices there are 76 percent higher than those encountered at all Spanish airports. The range is wider still for perfumes where prices at most European airports are well over double those found in Athens.

Then also there is a substantial variation in what the buyer saves by making his purchase at the airport rather than a store in the same city. For liquor at the Copenhagen airport, he pays 70 percent less than he would in town. But in Milan that differential is only 9 percent.

However, large or small, such a differential exists everywhere for cigarettes, liquor and perfumes. But it does not necessarily do so for all other merchandise sold at airports.

For a film for his camera, for instance, the traveler pays 2 percent more at London airport than he would at a local shop. Nor will he usually save much money, if any, if he acquires this camera at the airport.

Because the German camera market is highly competitive, it appears that for certain makes shopping around in town will result in a slightly better deal than is possible at Frankfurt airport where moreover the choice of models available tends to be more limited.

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