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The Perfume Sampling Business Is Thriving Post-Pandemic

Niche fragrance sites have combined sample-focused offerings and fragrance literacy to usher in a new era of perfume shopping.

In spite of a yet-ongoing pandemic, supply chain woes and the twin anxiety triggers of increasing prices and inflation, sales of fragrances have remained strong across the luxury sector over the last few years. To hear experts in the retail trenches tell it, though, fragrance sales may be bucking trends in part because of economic uncertainty.

For an updated snapshot of the current fragrance commerce landscape, Fashionista spoke with staff from four thriving fragrance retailers: Twisted Lily, Olfactif, The Perfumed Court, and sibling brands Lucky Scent (e-commerce) and Scent Bar (brick-and-mortar). All report marked growth since the start of the pandemic in 2020, and sustain their growth through pressure-free customer education, paired with near-encyclopedic inventories of scents from off the beaten path. The experts were also kind enough to share their views on current trends in fragrance popularity and the roles of influencers in the sector.

Read on for the main takeaways.

Discovery, access and customization drive sales

Although department-store fragrance counters likely aren’t going anywhere, sample-focused e-commerce models offer more approachable entry points to everyone from the dedicated fragrance collector to the perfume-naive. Twisted Lily’s Brand Director Elaine Keay describes her team’s mission as building a company that is “very inclusive, conversational — a place of discovery,” focused on lowering barriers to understanding perfume’s highly specialized vocabulary. 

Twisted Lily’s multi-pronged method includes mood-based scent curation, sample packs developed with influencers and a unique and delightful time suck: Match It. Licensed from fragrance historian Michael Edwards’s original Fragrance Wheel, Match It is customized to offer product matches within Twisted Lily’s inventory. As Keay clarifies, the tool doesn’t provide exact dupes for a favorite scent, but rather encourages customers “to explore the family that a fragrance falls in and expand out a little bit,” by suggesting three scent options to try. 

For example, a fan of the wildly popular “Woods” scent Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540 might be offered three more woody scents, such as Roja Taif Aoud, Amouage Meander and Juliette Has a Gun Sunny Side Up. One click of the “Sample Your Matches” button below the row of suggestions places samples of all three fragrances in the customer’s cart at once. If the first three recommendations aren’t appealing enough to sample, customers can re-submit their current favorite for more potential matches, leading to an easily justified small luxury: Spending $25 on three 2mL samples is miles away from the eye-watering $765 a 100mL bottle can command. 

Photo: Courtesy of Olfactif

Olfactif’s approach to customer education merges expert curation with self-paced, self-guided discovery. Specializing exclusively in niche and small-batch fragrances, the company offers 2mL samples, 5mL travel-sized atomizers and full-sized bottles, but the heart of the business is its monthly perfume subscription box

Owner Danielle Fleming puts her expertise as a perfumer to work by selecting each of the boxes’ six fragrances — which are also added to the company’s Scranton, Pa. brick-and-mortar — every month. Working four-to-six months ahead, she assigns monthly themes and builds boxes loosely characterized as “feminine” and “masculine.” Fleming credits Olfactif’s long-running continuous sales growth in part to “selling commodities that make you feel good,” noting, “There was a time where it felt like, ‘Is the world ending?’ We needed comfort.”

Fleming also prides herself on providing substantive experiences for all kinds of customers. Along with samples, each box includes informational cards describing the scents of the month. Another educational tool is Olfactif’s archive of “blog posts that guide you about how to wear and store fragrance.” 

It’s a delicate balancing act every month, providing on-ramps for fragrance newcomers and in-depth details for the “die-hard, passionate frag-heads” who relish wild-card selections.

In-store experiences, at home

Lucky Scent has been selling samples and full-sized bottles through its e-commerce platform since 2002, but following lockdowns in 2020, the company’s Scent Bar storefronts in Los Angeles and New York reopened to in-person shopping on a whole new level. Claire Jelinek, the brand’s social media manager, recalls that, pre-pandemic, the stores “were always pretty busy, but now, even on any random Monday, we’ll have tons of people in the stores, and weekends are slammed.” More times than they can count, Jelinek and her in-store colleagues have heard customers describe their interest in fragrance as a pandemic-prompted novel sensory experience that developed into an enduring fascination.

To encourage better-informed sampling at home, Lucky Scent has been shrewdly repurposing its short-form recommendation videos created for TikTok and Instagram on its e-commerce platform. Embedding the videos on featured fragrances’ individual pages provides a close facsimile of in-person consultations to customers who can’t visit one of the three Scent Bar storefronts in L.A. and New York. 

Both Jelinek and Twisted Lily’s Elaine Keay describe prioritizing fragrance literacy and enjoyment as a remarkably effective sales technique. Jelinek notes that, “in the stores, sampling definitely leads to sales — if somebody’s not 100% sure about a fragrance, we’re much more likely to encourage them to take a sample and live with it for a little while and make sure they love it.” 

When customers return to buy a full bottle, “sometimes they even bring in the card where we wrote the sample name on it, so we know they were at the store.” Building trust between knowledgeable sales associates and customers leads to healthy sample-to-purchase conversion rates and long-term relationships with customers, a win-win for everyone.

Niche, designer and drugstore scents hold special appeal

Classicism and eclecticism go hand-in-hand at The Perfumed Court, which has been selling samples and decants since 2003. Founder and owner Diane Weissman, a self-described lifelong vintage and fragrance obsessive, got her start selling classic formulation samples of 20th-century scents through an eBay storefront. Accordingly, her approach to customer education and discovery reflects a historian’s informed enthusiasm; the retailer’s site includes explainer pages full of general information, a glossary and an introduction to fragrance families.

Although vintage was “a huge percentage” of her sales initially, over the years the availability of vintage formulations viable for sale has decreased dramatically. Weissman’s preference for intensity and verisimilitude led her to stock parfum formulations, which have the highest concentration of fragrance notes, but are also a little challenging to stock.

“The parfum lasts the least amount of time, because it has less alcohol, so it goes bad way quicker,” she explains. Still, the retailer’s niche offering is what draws in shoppers.

The scope of The Perfumed Court’s inventory makes it possible for customers to sample gems: the original formulation of Robert Piguet’s Fracas, Estée Lauder’s modern classic Knowing and direct-to-consumer favorite Sweet Ash from Snif, as well as fascinating out-there scents like Bat and Dragonfly from conceptual parfumerie Zoologist. 

Fragrance enters its gourmands-and-influencers era

Two words that seem to be fueling conversations about current and future fragrance trends, according to most of the experts Fashionista consulted, are influencers and gourmands. And the two go hand-in-hand: Popular influencers — including independent podcasters and video creators sharing their knowledge and taste with the world — can have a powerful effect on consumer interest in fragrances. 

Many of them are particularly eloquent on the subject of gourmands, the family of fragrances that smell good enough to eat. Among the brands interviewed, Twisted Lily’s work with influencers is the most developed. Twisted Talent, a sector of the company led by Elaina White, capitalizes on influencers’ most powerful tool. Per white, it’s their ability “to tell you why they love a scent, why it smells great on them, where they wear it, to be able to get someone intrigued.”

According to White, it “has really changed the game for us in terms of being able to market to younger customers. Our strongest demographic is definitely still the 25-45 age range, but the 18-24 is right up there, and that’s a group to nurture.”

Lucky Scent’s Jelinek thinks of influencer content as a type of research tool, noting that, “people come in wanting to smell certain things” that their favorite influencers talk about. “It translates to sales. Certain things get really popular, and sell out really quickly, and keep selling out because they’ve been hyped online,” she says. 

The combination of realistic fruity, sweet, and dessert-conjuring notes found in influencer-beloved powerhouses — such as Kilian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy, and Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Baccarat Rouge 540 — shows no sign of waning in popularity. If anything, the category seems to be expanding beyond ultra-sweet fragrances, into more savory and nutty territory.

Photo: Courtesy of Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Weissman and Keay both cite D.S. & Durga Pistachio — which the brand recently promoted from a limited edition to a mainstay — as a leader in that sub-category. Twisted Lily’s White has seen a surge of interest in pear, tea and coffee notes among #PerfumeTok creators, while Keay predicts that matcha and bubbly-leaning boozy notes are heading for a revival, and Weissman believes citrusy gourmands are waiting for their moment. Meanwhile, Fleming’s assessment of the fragrance landscape leads her prediction to zig where others zag: She’s looking ahead to a resurgence of easy, citrusy, fresh and aquatic scents — literal whiffs of optimism people can wear out the door. 

Of course, nobody can make predictions with perfect certainty; for all her experience and deep historical expertise, Weissman quips, “I’ve been doing this for 20 freakin’ years and I still don’t really know what’s going to be a hit and what isn’t. A perfume can be amazing, and still not end up a beloved fragrance.” 

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