On perfume samples, or why it is easier to be a niche snob

Perfume vialsI have been thinking this week about a summary of the year in perfume, and have been struck once again by how many of my favorites from 2005 are from the niche houses. Back in June, I posted a brief article on niche snobbery, and while I have tried to expand my sampling to include more mainstream and designer fragrances, I have to say that it isn't easy.

If you want to get a sample of the latest niche perfume, it isn't so very hard to do. Almost all of the online niche boutiques offer sample sets. You will have to pay, mind you, but paying a few dollars for a sample is not a big deal to me; in the end it is far cheaper than buying an expensive bottle unsniffed. For some lines, of course, it is not quite so simple. If you want to snag a sample of the latest Serge Lutens exclusive, you will have to buy on ebay or swap on one of the fragrance boards. But then, interest in the latest Serge Lutens exclusive is so high that you will probably not have much trouble.

Samples of mainstream fragrances are paradoxically much harder to obtain. A few of the online discount perfume stores offer samples for sale, but the selection is dismal in comparison to the niche boutiques, who will generally make up a sample of anything they have in stock. When Ralph Lauren released Pure Turquoise earlier this year, I went off to the mall to get a sample, only to be told by four department stores that they didn't have a single one. No surprise there: sales associates generally hoard samples like candy, and award them like prizes to paying customers only. Not one of the stores would allow me to make my own sample (yes, I carry empty glass vials). Another paradox: high end department stores are usually willing to allow a customer to make a sample, the lower end stores usually say no.

I did check ebay, where I found that I could get easily a sample of Pure Turquoise, but once the shipping costs were included, it would run me about $5. At that point, I lost interest. So in the end, despite the millions that Ralph Lauren probably spent to promote Pure Turquoise, I never got to try it except briefly on a paper test strip.

I will end my little rant with a rave for Nordstrom, the only department store that will still cheerfully provide you with a sample of any fragrance they sell. If they don't have a carded sample, they will make a sample from the tester. At some stores, they even put a bowl of empty vials right on the counter so you can make your own samples. If I am going to pay full price for a fragrance, which is admittedly rare, I try to do it at Nordstrom.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I cannot agree more. I decided to obtain some samples of mainstream brands from one of the online dicounters, and when I started to check out, I noticed that to my horror the total was $350. Not surprising if each carded sample runs from $3 to $6 (in contrast to $1.50-2/a sample from most of the niche purveyors such Aedes, Beautyhabit, etc.). So, yes, it is much easier to be a niche snob.

    BTW, I had an almost identical story with Pure Turquoise.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree with how wonderful Nordstrom is with samples. When I lived in the States, I lived in Chicago for the last 5 years and the Nordstrom associates were ALWAYS very generous with samples. And in Chicago, they also have wonderful fragrance events! Twice a year they do a fragrance luncheon with minatures (about 10) and nice lectures from people from perfume houses.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, exactly. I hope They (low-end stores) are reading this :-) And- well done, Nordstrom!

  4. Anonymous says:

    $350, ouch! It is crazy to pay $6 for a fragrance sample, you can just about get a mini for the same price. I'll stick with my niche houses, LOL!

  5. Anonymous says:

    K, I have heard their fragrance events are wonderful but have yet to attend one. Will have to see how you get on the list.

    Just read today that Sephora is giving up the foam samples in the jars, and going back to real glass vials. If it is true, it is great news for fragrance addicts!

  6. Anonymous says:

    M, it is crazy that I managed to sample SL Borneo & FM Carnal Flower but can't get my hands on MyQueen or Pure Turquoise. You would think some of these companies would just as soon not have you try their fragrances!

  7. Anonymous says:

    R, just call Nordstrom on Michigan Ave, and they will take your name and number and put you on the list, and call you to remind you. (You have to pay a couple weeks in advance, I think).

  8. Anonymous says:

    I work at a lower end department store I guess. We are taught to give samples to paying customers, but I am one of the few who will actuaually give them out without a sale. Most of the time my store does not have alot of samples, people will give out too many or we will have loads of one kind. By making your own sample you mean spraying it in the a little vial? I will have to go to nordstroms and find out how they work with that system.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I can verify that Sephora is going back to spray sample vials. Saw them when I was there just before the holidays. Hated that foam pad!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Liked MyQueen. Try Nordies; I sampled it there. If I have any Pure Turquoise, it's yours.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I had an identical experience with Pure Turquoise. No one had any samples anywhere. I wound up spraying it on myself and not liking it very much (lots of patchouli in this one).

    I've heard that some SA's hoard samples for themselves and sell them on E-bay for personal profit!

    At any rate I always seem to get the hairy eyeball when I request a sample without making a whopping purchase first.

    I think companies could do so much more marketing-wise with samples.

  12. Anonymous says:

    They are scared…and they should be bwah ha ha :-)

    Seriously though, it is ridiculous. I don't have any brick and mortar store near me to sample this kind of stuff, and while I can order niche stuff from various sites, there is nowhere to get say Pure Turquoise. And I will not pay the price they ask on ebay.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thanks K, I'll try my local Nordstrom (King of Prussia). I'm pretty sure all the stores do the events.

  14. Anonymous says:

    B, the foam pads were worse than useless…glad to see the return of real vials confirmed, and spray vials is even better!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi Eire Girl, Yes, I mean spraying in a little vial. Nordstrom has the empty vials, and also little folding cards so that they can write the name of the fragrance. It is very handy, and I would guess inspires lots of repeat customers — but I'm well aware that it isn't something Strawbridges or Hechts is likely to adopt :-)

  16. Anonymous says:

    Completely agree that companies could do more. The money spent on scent strips strikes me as largely wasted, but of course, I am hardly your typical 2.5 bottles a year consumer, so what do I know.

    In fact, given how few bottles most women buy, it strikes me as senseless to only give samples to someone who just bought a bottle rather than someone who made a special trip to the store just to try a particular perfume.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Thank you B! I actually heard very little on MyQueen this year…it doesn't seem to have made a big impression on the fragrance boards.

  18. Anonymous says:

    More of the same: I live near Hechts, NM, Saks and Macy's. Not ONE of them will give me a fragrance sample on request, they say they don't have any, and I know they're lying through their teeth. Assume they save them as add-ons to a purchase. For “niche” fragrances, in contrast, there is only one small store here I am aware of (thank you, Robin!) That store's employees will cheerfully talk perfume with me for an hour a visit, send me out the door with a large bag of generous samples made by the perfumers (l'Artisan, Diptyque, SL) and don't seem to care whether I buy. They've gotten 100% of my in-store perfume biz.

    But, Robin, I still feel the “niche snob” issue goes beyond the samples (and I remember LT's post on this.) Maybe LT is thinking of what's lined up on the counters of, say, Printemps in Paris. And I know you've explained to me that JLo and Paris Hilton presumably hire great noses to make their perfumes. But line up 15 random fragrances from the counters of the local Dillards, Macy's, or whatever (assuming the testers haven't been stolen) and ask yourself, how many of those would you want? I've hated some of the SLs, and pretty much all the Carons, but God knows they're interesting. With some exceptions, mainstream perfumes just … aren't. I mean, have you smelled the Turquoise? It's boring. It's watery and aspirational, a yacht and a Navajo blanket, it smells expensive. But not compelling. If I want to get that frisson, my socks knocked off, my skirt blown up, mostly whatever that sensation is — it happens with a “niche.” I don't know why. For me, that's just the way it is.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I think one of the nicest parts of shopping in some smaller boutiques as well is not just the availability and ease of obtaining samples, but also the cheerful and non-pressuring attitude that goes with them. Most of the boutiques that sell niche fragrances are run by the owners themselves, and they aren't in a hurry to make a weekly/monthly sales quota for fear of losing a job. They're in it for the long haul, and know that if we can try out a sample of some unique little thing when our noses are tired out, we will be much more likely to come back and purchase it later on. If they were to simply refuse samples, their bottles of unadvertised niche perfumes would be quickly forgotten by “regular” consumers.

  20. Anonymous says:

    D'oh – that reads weird. What I meant to say was “if we can try out a sample LATER ON AT HOME because our noses are tired out.”

  21. Anonymous says:

    Well, M, that is just it. I'll pay $5 for the latest Serge on ebay because even if I hate it, it is unlikely that it will bore me. And it has value: I can swap it for something else wonderful. The Turquoise I hate to comment on as really, smelling from scent strips is a waste of time, but it certainly didn't knock my socks off either.

  22. Anonymous says:

    LOL — I knew what you meant, K. Yes, was also interested to see that many of the best sellers at the niche boutiques were scents that I know their owners love & therefore champion to their customers. Would love to know if Costes sells as well at Takashimaya as it does at Aedes. I would suspect not.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I went back and reread your original post. The whole “snob” aspect makes me so uncomfortable. LT's a perfume omnivore. I have dutifully sniffed JLo and Baby Phat Goddess, etc. with an open mind. You're right — it's not that they're “bad” — they're just mostly too sweet or spicy/sweet for me. Whatever it is he sees in Beyond Paradise baffles me. I can't tell it apart from any other heady tropical floral at Hechts, but I don't have his finely tuned nose.

    Here's my question: what percentage of “niche” product (pick your own definition) do you believe is purchased by perfume fanatics? Put it another way: do people who only have one fragrance probably own something they bought at the Estee Lauder counter with their last lipstick purchase? Conversely, if you own a bottle of Ormond Jayne, is it sitting there alone, or with 30 other niche bottles and a shoebox of decants? ;-)

  24. Anonymous says:

    I don't “get” Beyond Paradise either, but I also don't think “finely tuned nose” has much to do with it. No matter how much of an expert you are, personal taste is still the final arbiter.

    My guess on OJ is that yes, many of the buyers are perfume fans who own lots of bottles, but that the niche scents in general also attract lots of buyers who just want to own a signature scent that they aren't going to smell all over the place.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Fascinated to read the similarities for sample purchasing are the same globaly.

    I'd have little hope of getting a sample from our larger department stores, Myer, David Jones etc in Australia. Independant boutiques are a different story as are some chemist stores that stock substancial amounts of perfume.

    Are the sample vials with a dabber attached to the lid still used in the USA?

    By the way Robin, the sheep farm stay was very pleasant except for the worst locust plague in 50 years! Litereraly billions of grass hoppers swarming past the house for days on end.

    My little dog Elsie was reluctant to put even her nose out the door.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I almost never get samples from department stores either – of course they sadly shake their heads and say sorry, but you KNOW they have some! They make a lot of money in the cosmetics department since nothing ever goes on sale. You would think they would WANT to promote the stuff!

    I sometimes send away for samples, but my local perfume shop just loves to give them out and I don't have to buy every time either. That being said, we perfume junkies are insatiable – imagine my pique when I discovered that I cannot try ALL the Serge Lutens fragrances in existence since there is an “export” range and an “exclusive” range with only a few crossovers? I came home with a fistful of samples but of course I want the ones they did not have available to try! Now the hunt is on….

  27. Anonymous says:

    Great discussion here. I recently formed a great friendship with the BVLGARI rep at the Lord and Taylor in Philadelphia and he never has samples, they simply don't send them to him very often. He told me to stop in around Christmas and I did and by the time I did, he had given them out to paying customers. Well it just frustrates me to no end. I feel like if you're working behind a fragrance counter, you should know what you're doing. A person cannot and should not be expected to buy something 5 minutes after they spray it on a card and anyone who knows fragrance would know this. Now, that said, at my local niche boutique, where I have also formed bonds – they never get samples at all. I have no tried the bringing my own vials idea yet – where do you even get the vials from?? Last week I was in Bergdorf Goodman, surrounded by the best scents on earth and no one had samples. Jo Malone only has samples for certain scents and wouldn't you know it – they were completely out of samples. Part of it I think is because I'm so young, I'm 20 and I look it. So people I think automatically assume I am poor and won't buy the fragrance anyway – I'm just being greedy. Well, the truth is, I'd buy the fragrance in a heartbeat with all the money I had and walk back to Pennsylvania. And even in Bergdorfs, I find people honestly have no idea what they're talking about. There are a few, the CREED reps are always fantastic and surprisingly generous. But Jo Malone – what the hell does she have to be so pretentious about? Just because Oprah practically drinks the grapefruit straight up does not suddenly make us terribly hifalutin. Some counter people won't even acknowledge me and I just want to spray Royal Water in their face and go report them, but I just walk out and try and forget about it.

  28. Anonymous says:

    The only sales associate that ever won my heart was a Guerlain sales woman at The Bay in Vancouver: when I asked for samples of perfumes such as Vol de Nuit, Chamade and l'Heure Bleue, she said: “we don't have samples of those, but I can make you one!”. She took one of the empty sample vials she had (already etched with either Shalimar, Samsara or Champs Elysee – the only samples they had available at this time), filled them all up from the tester, and put a lable on (she had readily printed lables – probably from her home computer) with most of the perfumes they had on the counter).

    Her felixibilty and willing to go through the trouble of decanting all the scents for me is something I will always remember, especially when so many times you hear that there are no samples. I would mutter to myself silently: “why won't you just make one than?” – of course, it will take years before the department stores will pick up on this simple trick and it will be the norm.

  29. Anonymous says:

    A locust plague for Christmas! I have never seen one, and might find it interesting but probably not for days on end, LOL! Glad you had a nice holiday anyway.

    Yes, the vials with the dabbers on the lid are still used here, and those are the kind I buy.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I think they usually do have some hidden away, and more than once I've been told no, they don't have any, then persisted in asking if I could make my own, only to have the SA open a drawer and pull out the sample they pretended not to have. Argh!

    The SL exclusives really are worth buying on ebay, especially if you can find a reasonably priced set.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Funny — I have had the same experience with the JM people in Bergdorfs. They are not very friendly. The JM counter at King of Prussia is much nicer, IMHO.

    The best place for small quantities of empty vials is pilotvials.com. A warning though: asking if you can make your own samples doesn't tend to elicit better treatment from SAs, as you can probably imagine. You have to be pretty shameless. Sometimes you just get lucky and they are so thrown off by the request that they say yes just to get rid of you.

  32. Anonymous says:

    A, that is interesting, because an SA at a Guerlain counter in PA did the same for me this year for the L'Instant Pour Homme. Very smart marketing if you ask me, and of course, nobody does ;-)

  33. Anonymous says:

    R, you already know my JM story — in Saks, I asked for samples of JM, we chatted, I told her I wanted to try the orange and the pom noir, she went off for samples, returned with a bag, more chat, then she rung up the two bottles and basically DARED me not to take them. I mean, I had made it very clear I wasn't buying. Weird. (No, I didn't cave.) I didn't give the samples back, tho she looked like she was thinking of taking them! MarkDavid, FWIW, I'm 40ish and dress well and I still get some snotty treatment from SAs occasionally. I think, if you can't sell to *me,* who can you sell to?!

  34. Anonymous says:

    I have to add this. Today in the mail I got a package from Paris, and it was from Frederic Malle. Inside was two 5ml spray bottles, one of Musc Ravangeur and one with En Passant and a lovely handwritten note from them! I am floored by their customer service (especially after dealing with the very unhelpful sales associates in the department stores here in the regarding fragrances and samples). I really like both of the fragrances and will no doubt buy from them.

  35. Anonymous says:

    does it work better if you ask for a real sample first and then when they say we don't have any then pull out your own vial?

    Yes, the King of Prussia Jo Malone counter is very nice and I have to say, The people in Neiman Marcus at KOP have always been very kind to me, I've walked away with half of the Creed line in samples. How have you fared there?

    Another good Jo Malone counter is in Boyds on Chestnut Street in Philly if you ever get there. But even there, they're limited in what samples they have and it drives me absolutely crazy. But since thats the only fragrance that Boyds sells, they're willing to talk with you for a while about the line, the woman who works there used to be the buyer for Bergdorf's, but she has just a tinge of attitude because of that. How she went from Bergdorfs Buyer to Boyds SA is a question to be raised.

  36. Anonymous says:

    It's so nice to get those surpise packages every once in a while. I often times get a few samples in the mail from Bond. Except that they keep sending me Wall Street – I have so many samples of Wall Street I could make 2 full size bottles.

  37. Anonymous says:

    The KOP NM is in general, very well run, and the selection is pretty good. I also like the KOP Sephora. Less help comes from the Hermes store upstairs, where they are interestingly enough snottier than in the Hermes boutique in NYC, and where they NEVER have samples of anything.

    Have never been to Boyds!

  38. Anonymous says:

    Oops, and yes, I always ask for a real sample first!

  39. Anonymous says:

    Yes, FM is really stellar in that regard, congrats on your minis! En Passant is one of my all time favorites.

  40. Anonymous says:

    I was able to sample one new mainstream fragrance very easily in September 2005: Calvin Klein Euphoria. Deluxe spray vials were handed to me by CK reps at both Lord & Taylor and Macy's in NYC when I stopped to sniff the fragrance and examine the bottle. I only purchased one mainstream fragrance in fall-winter of 2005. Guess what it was? Exactly. I wonder whether there might have been others, if I'd had the chance to try them from sample vials at my leisure.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Handed to you without asking? Wow, I'm impressed. That has quite literally never happened to me. And Euphoria is yet another that I've never actually tried on skin, although I did smell it on a paper strip. Much to do in 2006…

  42. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that is really cheeky! I can't imagine any store tolerating (or expecting!) that kind of behavior from their sales staff. I would not shop at a place like that again if it happened to me. (There is a Saks in my city but I amost never go in there – they look at the customers as though they are all criminals.)

  43. Anonymous says:

    I still have no idea what was going on! In each store, an SA asked if she could help, I said that I'd just tested the fragrance on my arm and liked it a lot, and she produced a sample from a hidden drawer and offered it! Bizarre…. and such a good business strategy, all too sadly lacking at many big fragrance counters, as everyone seems to agree. CK was definitely doing something right that month.

  44. Anonymous says:

    The Hermes boutique at KoP is SOO Snotty. But I have gotten a lot of samples there. And they have a lot of differnt people who work there so I go back often and have gotten a lot of samples of Jardin sur le nil, enough that I don't have to buy a bottle anytime soon.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Macy's NY really pushes fragrances well, I've found. They always have at least one new fragrance that they are really promoting big time and have samples galore.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I really like both of them. I am amazed how much I like the En Passant, because I general don't care for water fragrances. This is such a lovely scent, though. I am REALLY liking the Musc Ravageur!

  47. Anonymous says:

    Unless you really love the Wallstreet, maybe it is time to start swapping those :) I need to find someone here that carries the Bond line, I am eager to smell those.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Well it isnt lower end really. It is marshall field aka macys soon. That sounds like a really good idea, I am a big sample fan.

  49. Anonymous says:

    I'm a newbie, and yes I'm posting a wee bit late–Great blog, BTW, your fragrance descriptions are wonderful. Samples are wonderful, and the dept stores in the Chicago area must be more friendly, since I've never had a huge problem getting samples. But there is a glaring lack of the samples I want. I've asked the Nordstrom ladies for sampes of scents like Hiris and No 19, but rarely do they have empty vials for these. It is hit or miss.

    Nordstrom in Chicagoland, (to echo the Chicago poster is great!) The ladies there will chat and sometimes surpise one–I was seeking an Anick Goutal sample but was compensated with 5 others like Pink Sugar, Jil Sander no 4, etc. Another time I was given Bvlgari ones. My sister enjoyed the Pink Sugar.

    Later on when I broke the Pink Sugar vial (oops!) I was able to have a Nordstrom salesman decant me one into those empty vials. Sometimes I feel a little guilty I don't purchase there, but I buy online since it's cheaper.

    It's baffling to me stores don't have empty vials. I even once made my own sample of Estee to see if I liked it. I did, so I'll get a bottle when my mini runs out. The saleslady found it a little odd perhaps, but I didn't care. I haven't had luck with Guerlain, but I did get some niche samples from CO Bigelow. And I really hope Sephora goes to vials, since those foamy pads stink.

    I can't afford much but eventually I do get around to buying what I love. Too bad most places don't have empty vials, but at least Nordstom seems to have samples of the new fragrances when they come out. Has anyone squirted their own at stores like Ulta. At least there there won't be salesfolk staring one down like so many vultures. If the sample will help me decide, then let me make it!

  50. Anonymous says:

    I like so many from the line: En Passant, Vetiver Extraordinaire, Parfum de Therese, Eau d'Hiver, and the new Carnal Flower. The Musc is gorgeous but “not me”.

  51. Anonymous says:


    Have never asked to make a sample at Ulta, but Sephora let me use my own vials about 75% of the time. Sometimes I'd ask someone who turned out to be a manager, and they always said no.

    I am so surprised your Nordstrom doesn't always have empty vials! Mine always does, and as I said above, another Nordstrom that I sometimes visit keeps them in a big glass bowl on the counter.

  52. Anonymous says:

    (late posting) Katiedid makes a good point about niche fragrances being unadvertised. The retailers of these scents HAVE to make samples easily available through purchase or giveaways. Other than personal recommendations from the boutique owner, samples are the only marketing tool. So one should expect that samples of niche scents are easily obtained.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Quite true, Iris. I just wish the mainstream lines would invest a bit less money in glossy magazine ads and a bit more money in making samples available to consumers. Glossy ads don't sway me one bit.

  54. Anonymous says:

    I usually find 5 perfumes I like but can't decide on one until I wear each several times. How many samples does Nordstrom allow you to take?

  55. Anonymous says:

    I don't know if they have a policy — I've never asked for more than one or two at a time.

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