My reader, Red, put it quite succinctly when we were discussing our fragrance shopping experience, “I am often confused and frustrated with the way retail fragrance counters are arranged and have all but given up the past pleasure of trying new scents on my lunch break.” Department stores with their crowded and poorly organized fragrance bars, commission driven sales personnel and lack of useful information definitely make fragrance shopping frustrating. Of course, in New York and other big cities there are various fragrance boutiques,where one can find a broad range of fragrances as well as passionate and well-informed staff; however, the reality for most fragrance shoppers is the department store. As much as I complain about the department store fragrance bar, I still love having lots of different fragrances to sample in one location while also checking in on the latest shoe sale. What if all one has nearby is Macy’s? It is in fact possible optimize the fragrance shopping experience. Below I will share several tips that have worked for me during my department store expeditions. Do you have tips of your own? Please feel free to share! I am always up for anything to make the fragrance shopping as efficient and pleasant as possible.
Standing in front of a perfume counter filled with bottles can be an overwhelming experience—what to choose, what to smell? With only so much skin on my arms and only one nose, it is best to be prepared. Bring a pen, a notebook, some small envelopes for retaining blotters, a bottle of water. I will explain later how these things come in handy.
If you already have an idea of what you might like to try, then make a list. If I am just trying to smell the new launches, that is what I do. Robin at Now Smell This blog posts lots of excellent information on new launches, which also includes details on where they are sold. Even if my goal is just to browse the Saks5thAvenue counter, I jot down a list of new releases before I set out to brave the Fifth Avenue crowds. This way, I just ask for the fragrances that interest me and often it keeps both me and the SA focused on what I actually want try.
Do Not Wear Perfume or Lotion, Even Unscented
It is best to avoid any perfume or lotion on days when you go fragrance shopping, especially if you are planning to test on your skin. Even unscented lotions will skew your perception of scent because they contain a special odor suppressing compound to mask the chemical scent of the lotion base. Therefore, spraying perfume on top of a lotion layer will not give you the proper impression of its character and staying power.
Go Straight for the Fragrance Counter
If you are planning to do general shopping at the store, start first with fragrances. Your nose is usually more sensitive when you come from the fresh air into the store. Moreover, the air in the department stores is usually quite scented, which tends to tire out the nose.
Pace Yourself: Start with 3-4 Fragrances
It is tempting just to start smelling everything in sight, but before you know it olfactory fatigue sets in and you can no longer distinguish Opium from Chanel No 5. Smell a few fragrances on a blotter, walk around the store, check out that shoe sale and come back for more smelling. Of course, with time you can develop the ability to smell lots of different scents, it is all in training your nose. However, if you are just starting to explore fragrances, do not try to smell more than 3-4 scents at a time.
Let Alcohol Evaporate Before Smelling
Whether on a blotter or on your skin, it is best to allow the alcohol to evaporate before you smell. Nothing causes olfactory fatigue more than the inhaling alcoholic fumes. Therefore, spray perfume (1-2 sprays per blotter are enough) and let it dry for a few seconds before starting to smell.
Smell in Short Inhales
Although we take smelling for granted, there is definitely a science to smelling, and it is nothing complicated! Instead of taking a deep, long inhale, smell your blotter or skin in 2-3 short, quick inhales. Take a long, calm breath before you resume smelling. This way, you will prevent the mucous membrane of your nose from getting oversaturated with scents.
Skip Coffee Beans
Coffee beans are commonly used at the fragrance counter to “reset” one’s nose as olfactory fatigue sets in. While in principle it should work, in practice you end up further overloading your smell receptors. The best tip for “resetting” a tired nose came to me when during my perfumery training during which I had to smell raw materials for literally 8 hours a day. Cover your nose with a scarf or bury your nose in the sleeve of a sweater and inhale deeply. Essentially you are filtering the air entering your nose which helps to reset your smell receptors. You can also take a sip of water; this always works for me.
Label Blotters to Smell Later
Bring a pen and label the sprayed blotters. You can bring little envelopes or a clean note book, and put labeled blotters between pages. Later, or even the next day, you can smell the blotters again to remind yourself of what you have smelled.
Just be aware that when you compare two scents, the first one you smell will tend to appear stronger than the second, because of the olfactory saturation. Take a deep, long breath, switch the order in which you smelled blotters and try again.
Do Not Let Sales Associates Spray You with Perfume
Instead, ask to spray it yourself. I still have a vivid memory of being drenched in Caron Tabac Blond parfum after a helpful SA offered to spray it on me. The fragrance, great though it was, has indelibly marked that winter in Paris, as it did my new silk blouse. If you are skin testing fragrances, you can judge yourself much better where and how much perfume you would like. Spray perfume on the back of the hand and on forearms and not by the wrist if you wear a watch.
Smell Fragrance Outside the Store
The air near the fragrance counter is often so filled with scent that it is almost impossible to get a good idea of how perfumes smell. Walk around the mall, step outside—it is best to smell in fresh air in order to see how fragrance develops on your skin.
To Ascertain Sillage, Do Not Smell Too Close Up
Another trick I picked up for ascertaining sillage, the trail that perfume leaves behind, is to smell by holding your arm or a blotter a few inches away from your nose. Can you still perceive the smell? Or is it obvious only if you bury your nose in your skin? A radiant perfume with a strong sillage should definitely have enough projection when smelled at a distance.
Look at Different Concentrations
These days many fragrances are available in different concentrations—parfum, Eau de parfum, Eau de toilette (from strongest to lightest.) If you can smell different concentrations of the same perfume, it might be very helpful, as some fragrances are balanced differently depending on the concentration. For instance, I do not like the heft of the floral notes in Chanel No 19 EDP, but the EDT with its luminous, effervescent aura is amazing.
Do Not Buy Right Away
It may seem obvious, but it is best to wear the fragrance for at least a couple of hours before you decide whether it is the one for you. Most people buy perfume based on the top notes, which is why fragrance houses put the most effort into crafting an appealing initial experience. In fact, top notes last at most for 15-30min while the body of the fragrance is what you will live with for the whole day. Let fragrance meld into your skin, let it become a part of you. Do you still enjoy it two hours later? Do you feel tempted to sniff your skin throughout the day? Do you like that lingering scent in the evening ?
Even if you do not buy anything, it never hurts to ask for a sample. Nordstrom and Sephora will usually give pretty much any sample you want, other stores are less generous. For a real perfume geek's tip, bring small sample vials and ask if you can make a small sample. Take that SA's card so that you can make a purchase later. Nobody has refused me yet, whether at Bergdorf Goodman or Macy’s, but be prepared for an occasional puzzled stare.
Reward Helpful Sales Associates
I do not envy the job of SA at a fragrance counter, as it is not the easiest retail position at the department store and often not the most financially rewarding. If they are uninformed and uninterested, it is usually because their managers do not provide them with training and incentives. However, whenever I meet a genuinely helpful and pleasant SA I try to make sure to let their managers know how much I appreciated their assistance. Most fragrance SAs work on commission, so if you decide to come back for your fragrance purchase later, do let the counter personnel know which SA assisted you. I believe that feedback from the customer will encourage the sort of experiences we appreciate—it might change fragrance shopping for the better, even if the change will not come overnight.
Learning Fragrance Families and Main Notes of Fragrances You Like
I love the parallel between the wine and fragrance industries because it really crystallizes the gaps in perfume retail. Information at the store and organization of the counter is one aspect that fragrance retailers can emulate. It was the California wine industry that decided to retail wine by varietal rather than by vineyard as was common in France. The truth of the matter is that fragrance families are even easier to understand than grape varietals. They can be enormously helpful in understanding how to pick a fragrance, why you like a fragrance, and what new olfactory experiences you might enjoy. Ideally, it would something that an SA can help you figure out—by learning about fragrances that you like, he/she would be able to suggest an alternative in the same family or a related family.
However, most SAs at department stores may not know much about fragrances outside of the brands with which they work. For the time being, the burden of seeking information and education falls on the consumer. However, if you love fragrance, exploring perfumes within specific fragrance families can be a lot of fun. I do not suggest memorizing lists of notes, but if you have an idea of what you like it can be interesting to map out one’s preferences. By way of example, I love Guerlain Shalimar, a classical oriental fragrance. Another composition in the same genre is Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur. So, when I am considering whether to add a sample of Ormonde Jayne Tolu to my purchase order, I know that I will probably like it as well because it is another classical oriental fragrance, rich in balsams, tonka bean and incense, just like the other two. What is more, the fragrance families that build upon the oriental category—floral oriental (Guerlain Chamade, Cacharel Amor Amor, Bond No 9 Chinatown) and woody oriental (Chanel Bois des Iles, Serge Lutens Bois Oriental, Dior Bois d’Argent) can offer some discoveries that I might like. If you would like to play: The Fragrance Wheel maps out the families in a very easy-to-understand manner, while the Fragrance Foundation Fragrance Directory lists almost all USA distributed fragrances organized by families.
Of course, fragrance families are not foolproof, just like grape varietals are not a foolproof way of selecting a bottle of wine, but they can provide some valuable guidance, or at least they can help narrow down the range of choice to a reasonable selection. Thus, when I was recently helping a friend to find a fragrance to replace her beloved (and now discontinued) L’Occitane Eau D'Iparie, we settled on several fragrances from the same classical woods family. She ended up buying Estée Lauder Sensuous and Serge Lutens Rousse.
Please share your own tips, as I am sure there are many more ways to have a pleasant fragrance shopping experience.
Photograph © VeraKL, all rights reserved.