The way fragrance is introduced, advertised and sold to the world hasn’t changed in nearly a century. No. 5, a seductive scent for the modern woman introduced by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, is marketed similarly to Tom Ford’s Black Orchid, a “modern” and “alluring potion” that came out in 2006. Both designers’ fragrances depend on an in-store experience that conjures these ideas and feelings through smell, somehow enticing people to spend over $100 on a bottle of scented water.
“Because smell is invisible, we are super-reliant on external cues for how we should interpret what it is that we’re experiencing,” said Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and the author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Enigmatic Sense of Smell.” “Verbal and visual information is exactly what we go to to help us identify and interpret and find meaning.”
You can get verbal and visual information about scent on your computer. But you can’t smell it. And with the coronavirus pandemic forcing most shopping online, this is a problem for the perfume industry.
Already, fragrance is doing worse online than any other beauty category, said Larissa Jensen, vice president of the NPD Group. She described brick and mortar as “especially critical” for prestige fragrance in the United States, where sales in March of this year were 45 percent less than in March 2019.
“As soon as stores closed, fragrance dipped,” Ms. Jensen said.
Mother’s Day business will likely take a hit. Even with Macy’s and Dillard’s reopening, sizable e-commerce businesses won’t be able to offset the loss of in-store sales for May, one of the most lucrative months for perfume.
One hope is that those who can’t be with their families will send perfume instead, said Linda Levy, the president of the Fragrance Foundation. This could create renewed demand for “classics” many are familiar with, like No. 5, La Vie Est Belle by Lancôme and Beautiful, from Estée Lauder.
And after coronavirus is conquered? “How brands and retailers are going to market will change considerably,” Ms. Levy said. “They are going to have to decide how they’re going to spend on social media and sampling, and how they’re going to change the environment in stores to be more consumer friendly.”
Online, product pages are filled with ludicrous bordering on nonsensical descriptions of ingredients and emotions a perfume is supposed to evoke. “The language capacity to describe fragrances is highly impoverished compared to our other sensory experiences,” Dr. Herz said. “We don’t really know what it is we’re smelling unless we’re told what it is.”
There’s also plenty of people who just don’t want to buy perfume at all, since they haven’t left their homes in nearly two months and it’s not something that could enhance their appearance on a Zoom call.
But for those who still wear fragrance, there is an opportunity for brands to convert e-commerce holdouts into fearless online shoppers. This will depend on whether companies can change customer behavior, the same way Casper and Zappos got people to order shoes and mattresses online.
Emily Weiss, the founder of Glossier and its chief executive, said investors she met with early on were unsure if people would buy any product from a direct-to-consumer beauty brand online. She proved them wrong, and four years later, challenged retail norms again by introducing a scent, You, that was sold only on Glossier’s website. It was previewed with samples in orders and scratch-and-sniff stickers, a cheekier version of the old scent strips in printed magazines.
Priced at $65, more than three times what most of Glossier’s products cost, You won a Fragrance of the Year honor at the Fragrance Foundation Awards (the fragrance industry’s Oscars, also known as the FiFis, this year rescheduled hopefully, like so much else, from spring to September).
The Glossier perfume benefited from strong word of mouth on Instagram and other platforms. But Laurice Rahme, the founder and chief executive of Bond No 9., a range of perfumes named after neighborhoods, streets and landmarks in New York City and its surrounding beaches, believes smelling a scent before buying is still nonnegotiable.
“Even though we do training, you never get the real story,” Ms. Rahme said of in-store employees. “They don’t tell it right. It gets lost in translation. Our staff aren’t Ph.D.’s in literature.”
She is reallocating her in-store staff budget to produce six million fragrance samples this year, up from two million in previous years, to mail to customers.
“You have to smell it,” Ms. Rahme said. “There is no other way.”
Jessica Richards, the owner of Shen Beauty, a popular boutique in Brooklyn, said sales for the Functional Fragrance, with purported “anti-stress benefits” from the Nue Co., a line of vitamin supplements, have tripled since February.
“It’s meant to be emotional, calming,” Ms. Richards said. The $30 roller ball contains violet, jasmine and palo santo.
Quieter language can also help a scent’s appeal online.
Giving personal fragrance and candles straightforward names such as Tobacco, Dark Rum, Mojito or Cannabis can make an internet purchase seem less intimidating, said Andrew Goetz, a founder of Malin + Goetz. (Naming them after vices doesn’t hurt either, as Tom Ford can attest.)
Jean Guillaume Trottier, the brand president of Jo Malone London, noted a last-minute tweak to the brand’s annual Blossom ad campaign, with a new flower each year.
Content about “escapism” to South Korea, conceptualized pre-pandemic, was quickly updated to be geographically agnostic. People may be desperate for an escape from reality, Mr. Trottier said, but only in the abstract sense. Promoting travel to a specific place when no one is allowed to travel wouldn’t have gone over well.
Home scents, though they are only a tiny portion of overall fragrance sales, are a bright spot online, where brands like Jo Malone London, Diptyque, Nest and Malin + Goetz have seen a surge in demand for candles.
Diptyque’s sales in the home category have tripled since March, according to the company, and D.S. & Durga said candles now make up 40 percent of its direct business. About 90 percent of Nest’s sales now come from home fragrance, up from 75 percent before the pandemic.
And as people start to leave their homes and return to stores, areas where cosmetics are sold — traditionally rife with touching, feeling and spritzing — are getting a makeover.
Retailers like Sephora and Ulta Beauty, and the department stores that invested millions of dollars on new beauty floors (to compete with Sephora and Ulta), are scrambling to outline what brick and mortar looks like post-quarantine, pre-vaccine. After getting a person to actually walk into your store, allaying customers’ hygiene concerns is a priority.
In a six-page “Beauty Protocol” that Saks Fifth Avenue sent to its vendors recently, and which was seen by The New York Times, the store outlined new tester practices that will go into effect once stores reopen.
The directive requires sales associates to sanitize hands in front of the customer, sanitize the bottle with alcohol spray and a tissue and spritz the sample on a blotting card to hand to the customer to smell the scent. Testers on counters will be strictly for display purposes.
Asked to comment on potential changes, Saks provided a statement from Kate Oldham, a senior vice president who oversees beauty, jewelry and home: “Our Beauty offerings have never been self-service driven, as our model was always designed for associates to assist customers trying products, providing a personalized approach and fostering a more hygienic environment.”.
But even with such cautions in place, customers are fearful.
Stormy Berry, 34, who owns a photography company in Edgewood, N.M., and calls herself a “Chanel girl” when it comes to fragrance, is scared to enter Sephora, where she does most of her beauty shopping, in the near future because of a compromised immune system.
“With the number of people who don’t take this seriously, it won’t be safe to be in a crowded store,” Ms. Berry said. “Since we can’t control others’ actions, I will control mine.”