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November 29, 2010

"For Older Women Only" : Why Fragrance Shopping is Often Frustrating


Imagine if you walked into a liquor shop and found that every single bottle of wine, red or white, French or Chilean, vintage or regular table variety, was actually touted to be the best wine in the whole world. The shop assistant, instead of listening to your likes and your dinner plans, would flatly state, “Let me show you the latest thing we have received. It is my favorite. It is made from the special, “radiant golden” grapes. Men especially happen to like it.” To top it all off, imagine if all wines were haphazardly arranged on shelves, with no logical organization method. It sounds absurd, yet this is the way fragrance is sold today. Perhaps the main issue is that while the pace of fragrance launches has accelerated from about 100 in 1990 to nearly a thousand in 2009, the way fragrance is sold has not changed in decades.

"For Older Women Only"

Last week I started with my holiday shopping, hence, my fresh awareness of some of the issues at the fragrance counter. The latest fragrance from Paco Rabanne was described to me as “all natural.” Chloé was presented as containing special “frozen musks”, which is baffling as even the press release does not mention anything of the kind. Instead of letting me  smell Givenchy Amarige, another sales associate at the fragrance bar tried to steer me towards the newest launches. When I mentioned preferring Ysatis to Very Irrésistible, the SA said, “oh, that's for older women only.” I might have actually gasped at this point. All in all, department store fragrance shopping is a headache, and I can completely understand why some people would prefer to buy some other type of gift for their friends and family.

Better SA Training Helps

This experience contrasts very pleasantly with that which I usually have at stores that either limit the need to interact with the SA (ie, Sephora) or that train their staff and insist on a certificate program (like Nordstrom). It also differs dramatically from what I usually encounter in France, where the SAs are highly trained (some even have degrees from ISIPCA) and usually spend time to listen to the customer’s preferences and help to select a fragrance from their whole range. In the US, I often find that among the department store brands, Clarins has the best track record, since they invest heavily in fragrance sales training, both on the marketing and on the olfactive aspects. Of course, a fragrance shopping experience is much more pleasant at the boutiques that sell niche perfumes, however, the artisanal fragrances also have higher price points (which does not necessarily reflect their superior quality.)

Confusing Selection

Moreover, fragrance is usually sold on the premise that every single one is a masterpiece. Certainly, fragrance is subjective—some of us like florals, others like mossy woods, but not every bottle on the fragrance counter is a Château Lafite. Some fragrances are more like table wines, and that is ok. For instance, I like Yves Rocher Rose Absolute, which I wear often, but it is unlikely to grace a list of fragrance legends. Plus, the constant launch of flankers, fragrances that are created based on the marketing concept of an existing brand, is confusing. By way of example, Givenchy Very Irrésistible in its feminine version has seen the launch of 13 flankers. If someone who keeps track of new launches on a daily basis is confused, I cannot imagine what an occasional fragrance shopper must feel when approaching the fragrance counter.

Alternative Way of Organizing Fragrance Bar: by Smell

Why not sell fragrances organized not simply by brand, but by the way they smell (floral, fruity, woody, etc.)? This is the model that wine stores follow in organizing their stock based on the provenance and the types of wines (Chardonnay vs Champagne.) After all, organizing fragrance stores by brands when every year brings in hundreds of new launches makes as little sense as organizing a wine shop by vineyard or label name. Nevermind the fact that most fragrance counters are not organized in any logical manner, brand or otherwise. I will not take credit for this idea, as it is something I have seen implemented at some Bigelow Chemists stores. Moreover, many industry experts believe that the fragrance stores can take a page from a wine shop model. Some have even tried implementing it.  For instance, Michael Edwards built his fragrance finder used by Nordstrom and Sephora on the premise that the scents are organized by the way they smell. Scent based guidance begins to make more and more sense to me as I hear of fragrance sales declining and of more people opting out for other types of gifts during the holiday shopping season. Of course, one assumes that the public would need some sort of education, but in my experience, people can better relate to the idea of scents, ie “floral rose” or “citrusy cologne,” than to brand names. After all, as my sommelier acquintances explain, the wine industry had to invest some effort to change its method of selling and to educate the public. If most of us shopping for wine know the difference between Chardonnay and Merlot, it is thanks to information made available to us. Perhaps it is time that the fragrance industry followed suit.

Next:  In my next post I will share a few fragrance holiday shopping tips that have worked for me in the past, whether in-store or online.

Still from George Cukor's The Women. Aren’t those bottles something else?



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