A lot has been made lately about how perfume sales have slowed despite the record number of new perfume releases and the millions of dollars spent marketing them. What has gone wrong? I have a few ideas about the reasons for lagging perfume sales and how to boost them. Perfume lovers, I welcome your input. Perfume flacks, pay attention.
First, let's go to the root of the problem. Good perfume, like good wine, isn't easy to love. To appreciate scent a person needs to spend time — sometimes years — smelling different scents and learning to appreciate them. Remember the first time you tried an olive or Taleggio cheese or champagne? You probably didn't like it. But once you started paying attention to what you ate and drank and your palate became more sophisticated, you started to prefer a little stink in your cheese and complexity to your wine. Perfume is like that. Someone first smelling perfume might naturally gravitate toward a juicy, fruity floral scent, but eventually that perfume feels flat and predictable.
The problem with perfume is that, unlike food, you don't need it to survive. So, without any other incentive a person might drift from fruity floral to fruity floral, only sporadically using perfume, seduced by marketing campaigns but never developing the nose to want to explore perfume for the pure pleasure of it. Without becoming hooked into the art of perfume, why would a consumer continue to buy it, except for habit and a vague desire to cleave to whatever the ad campaign shows? To build strong perfume sales, the industry needs consumers who truly appreciate perfume and see it as an important part of their lives.
In my mind, the first line for creating an audience for perfume is to build a knowledgeable perfume sales force. Right now, four out of every five perfume sales associates I've talked to don't know squat about perfume. A few months ago a sales associate at my local Macy's told me that Juicy Couture was 100% natural. Another sales associate, this one at Nordstrom, tried to tell me that Hanae Mori doesn't smell at all of vanilla. I'd love to talk to a sales associate in a department store who can do better than read the company's list of notes on the back of the tester. An informed sales associate will lead to an informed consumer, and an informed consumer will over time become someone who wants to know and buy perfume.
Next, stores need to offer samples freely. In most stores it takes a combination of charm, bargaining, and good luck to get a sample of any perfume. But how can you buy a perfume that you want to live with if you haven't been able to try it a while? Some online retailers are good about offering samples, and I've bought full bottles of perfume from Aedes and Luckyscent, for example, because I tried samples they sent with other orders. Good luck getting a sample of anything that was released longer than six months ago from a department store.
I also think perfume companies should slow down their releases to one or two carefully selected scents a year so that consumers can catch up. Instead, they should spend more time presenting the classic scents in their lines to new consumers. Too many fragrance releases a year means that that many more can be ignored.
On a more positive note, the New York Times features Chandler Burr as a perfume critic, and perfume blogs offer perfume criticism that let perfume lovers and novices examine fragrance seriously. I don't always agree with Burr, but I love it that he presents perfume as something to be considered equal to haute cuisine, clothing, and visual and performing art. And I learn a lot from him and from the perfume blogs I read every morning.
Once people know to approach perfume as more than flash-in-the-pan marketing but as an opportunity for an ever-deepening appreciation for scent, perfume sales will solidify. Once perfumers are known as artists instead of hidden behind a brand's identity, perfume will stop being treated as the equivalent of this week's top-forty hit but as a lasting and essential work of art.
Note: image via Images de Parfums.