Sunday, May 2, 2010

This Week at the Perfume Counter: Vending Machine

By now, the Russians at the fragrance kiosk are used to me. We know each other the way maybe a grocer used to know the guy down the street; not as best friends or even intimate acquaintances, but with a regularity that involves a lot of shorthand and a respite from yet another stranger in a long line of customers looking for the latest celebrity scent.

They know I want to see whatever just came in. I have no idea who their sources are, but they're always getting something I might have trouble tracking down on my own. I like the blonde woman the best. The place is cramped--they keep over half of their inventory in a storage unit they rent from the mall--but she'll dig through it without complaining. She'll open however many perfumes I want to smell. She'll even let me repackage them when she's particularly slammed.

Lately, the celebrity scent du jour has been Beyonce Heat. The kiosk generally stocks no more tan two or three bottles of the most popular sellers. They have ten bottles of Heat on hand at any one time, and they move quickly. Latifah didn't move anything near that. The most popular scent overall seems to be Light Blue. They don't move much Chanel. But Heat has spiked the chart in a way no other fragrance has. This seems to surprise no one but Beyonce, who, based on a recent quote, wasn't apparently paying attention.

I haven't found too terribly much at the kiosk these last several months. They do have a big bottle of Armani Onde Mystere, and having revisited it a couple of times I see it's a little more interesting than I originally thought, but I haven't seized it. I can get it fairly easily online. They got a bottle of Armani Gio in several months ago. I ignored it at first--it seemed like a pretty standard spiced tuberose to me--but after spraying it on a card and carrying that around for a while I realized how unusual it is. The real bonus with Gio arrives about an hour into wearing it, when the fruity green components bridge more fluidly into the tuberose and orange blossom. I'm guessing they still make this and sell it in Europe, because the box is not old and the list of ingredients is distractingly extensive. I imagine it smelled even better back in its day.

Yesterday, I had a curious conversation with a vendor at Macy's. I asked to smell Organza Indecence--not the tester, which was a much older bottle, but the Parfums Mythiques version, which is what they were selling. The vendor looked at me as if I were some kind of eccentric. Mention of the other Mythiques, none of which are available at the mall, opened up a parallel dimension for her. It was as though I were talking about alien sightings at Roswell. She might have told me what sales associates usually do, that there wasn't a tester for that and anyway they're the same, if not for the sales associate standing with us, a woman who told her, "He's a perfume connoisseur." I don't think she thought much of that--why should she? It still translates as "eccentric"--but she seemed curious where this was going, so she opened a bottle of the Mythiques version and sprayed it on a card for me.

They tell us there isn't a difference, she said. I'd just been through this with the SA at Dillards, where I returned a bottle of the new, allegedly unimproved, Opium. I'd bought it to spend a day with it. It was a boring day, like a date who keeps ordering salad. The SA asked me what the problem had been. Normally, I would say, "She already had it," as if I'd purchased it as a gift. But having just written a review of the changes to Opium's formula, I was interested in seeing what her reaction would be to an assertion something had been altered or tweaked. Oh no, she said. You should tell her it's exactly the same. They just changed the bottle. It has changed, I said. It's been reformulated. She looked at me like I was crazy for a millisecond, then her face relaxed into Stepford SA mode, if you can call that relaxed, and she chirped how pleased she would be to reimburse me.

It's fascinating to me that a vendor, as opposed to a sales associate, wouldn't truly know about or at least sense these reformulations. The idea that anyone could mechanically move through the tasks of a job having to do with fragrance is like the idea of a unicorn. Surely such a thing can't exist. Even so, it seems to me that customers would have to be making the changes known to her, if she can't tell or isn't bothering to pay attention herself. I'd just smelled Hypnotic Poison, and, sure enough, as the blogger Ambre Gris pointed out, it's no longer the same--maybe even eviscerated, to use Grain de Musc's term. Indecence too smelled altered.

The vendor assured me she wouldn't be able to tell the difference. I asked her to spray the old version on a card. Like the older Opium, older Indecence smelled deeper and richer, with a boozy bottom line to it. It was as if I were detailing the intrigue of some other industry when I told the vendor about the regulations and restrictions, the changes, the eviscerations. Isn't that something, her expression said. I think it's just difficult for me to imagine having a job in fragrance and not wanting to know all about it: good, bad, ugly, and otherwise.

These newer formulations seem much shriller to me. They're louder. And for all that shouting, they peter out more quickly, as if they've exhausted what they have to say before they even get going. They lack subtlety. Hypnotic Poison has none of the nuanced softness it did. Pure Poison has changed a lot too, but in a different direction. Gone are those wonderfully pungent, over the top contours. I found an older bottle at a discount store here in town, and compared it to a newer bottle. The newer version comes out with a whimper and stays there. The older Pure Poison is like a speed freak chatterbox on the skin. I happen to like a chatterbox with something to say, especially when, as with Pure Poison, orange blossom is a big part of the one sided conversation. I'll give orange blossom the floor any time it has something to say. This is what it really comes down to for me: even at their best and most sensitively done, the reformulations are one dimensional.

All of this makes me appreciate one of my favorite SA's, the woman just a few yards away from the Givenchy vendor, at the Estee Lauder counter, who very openly told me that Beautiful has been so drastically reformulated she can't stand to smell it anymore. She and her co-workers have been instructed to accept exchanges from disgruntled customers without acknowledging that anything has changed, presumably from women who have been wearing the stuff for decades now. The idea that the early onset of dementia in their elderly clientele is being hastened by the cosmetics counter is really disturbing to me.

Speaking of Lauder, I found box sets of Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia at the discount outlets for about a third of their retail price. The underbelly of this is the implication that the fragrance, like Opium and the Poisons, has been or is being reformulated. This fragrance was released in 2007. I put a positive spin on this by considering myself lucky to have found a bottle I can afford before they "change the packaging".


Marko said...

WHAT?!?!?! You found a bottle of Tuberose Gardenia on discount? Sign me up....I've loved that scent since it came out, but just couldn't justify the price (strange, I can somehow justify the price for a Malle, Lutens, or Byredo - but not for Ms. Lauder....hmmm....does this mean I'm a fragrance-snob?....I must examine this further...)

As I've mentioned in the past - I love your thoughts on fragrance, and gender, and rare brushed-under-the-carpet scents, etc, but I REALLY love it when you comment on the SA' reminds me that I am not alone in my frustration!

I don't get it either - how can the sales associates NOT want to know about what they are selling? Or being truly engaged in helping someone find a really great scent based on their likes and dislikes as opposed to pushing whatever fragrance has a cheesy "duffle bag with purchase" promotion that week.

Granted, there ARE good SA's out there, but sadly it feels more and more that they are the exception to the rule.

Today I will bough my head in a moment of grieved silence over the loss of the "Knowledgeable Sales Associate".....maybe we should petition to have them put on the National Endangered Species list?

Have a good week Bri -


La Bonne Vivante said...

I'm just jealous you have a SA, knowledgeable or otherwise, who can show you perfume. In my little town, there's no department store at all... the nearest place for smelling is an hour's drive away, so all my cravings have to be satisfied by mail, and as you can imagine, this gets expensive! Thanks for an enjoyable post!

Angela Cox said...

Sales assistants who work for specific perfume houses are nop better here . The Guerlain ones are a particular pain as all they seem to know about is the make-up and zilch about the perfumes or the history of them. The Prada girl in my town was blown away by my knowledge and that is VERY little . I am learning all the time thanks to Octavian and your site. I was buying Guerlain in my youth ( early 1970's) and had lots of wonderful leaflets on the history of the company sent from France. I have to phone Les Senteurs or order samples . As for vintage sadly I don't have the money but love reading about them. The most generous company with samples is "Senti" who kindly sent me all of Dr Vranjes fragrances ( little known) so I bought a huge bottle of Amber and Iris and Rosa and Cassis.

Ines said...

Unfortunately, the fact that most SAs (speaking for the beauty industry) know less than an average customer is a fact we all have to deal with around the world.
I keep wondering as well how in the world can they do their job well if first they are not aware of the restrictions directly impacting the content of their job and secondly, not even trying those things for themselves so they can discuss them in an objective manner with their customers. After all, that is the most important thing I as a customer want, a dialog about a product and that will make wantto return.
I'm sorry, I feel I'm ranting but this really bothers me.:)
Thank god, for that small percentage of really good and knowledgeable SAs if you can find one.

KathyT said...

Unfortunately it doesn't seem like a well-informed SA works with the business model that they are given. There are a couple of good ones at my local Nordstrom, but most of them talk up everything like it's the newest and best thing ever. I've learned the fine art of sampling and running for cover.

How do you know the older fragrances from the reformulations? Is it a bottle style change or can you tell from packaging?

Brian said...

I should say that there ARE some good SA's out there. Honesty or candor tends to go a long way with me. An SA who doesn't know squat but doesn't pretend to is a gem as far as I'm concerned, too. The best experiences I've had were at Barneys. One SA in Chicago Barney's very nearly made up for all the others. She made even my straight guy friend interested in perfume. He actually bought a bottle of Bois D'Orage. Where I live, not so much. Should also mention I've dealt with snobs in Barneys.

Marko, it's great to hear from another guy who goes through some of this stuff. It's a very particular kind of SA experience with male fragrance shoppers. A lot of weird awkwardness and ingrained, conditioned gender stuff comes with the territory.

Kathy, there's a basic way to determine the age of a fragrance. It isn't exact but it's ballpark. Look at the ingredients. If only water, parfum, and alcohol are listed, it's probably pre-nineties, maybe even pre eighties. When you see the f5 yellow and red (or whatever they are; can't remember at the moment) along with the above three, it's somewhere around late eighties to mid nineties, maybe late nineties. When the list gets super long and includes names like linalool, eugenol, cinnamal, farnesol, et al, it's post nineties. If in that list it still contains oakmoss, then it isn't one of the more recent reformulations. This is my very crude method but it's been a good general barometer for me.

ScentScelf said...

Always enjoy hearing your thinkings, Brian. And I've heard about your kiosk enough times that I'm a bit jealous. The closest I've come to that kind of experience is a hole in the wall Shiseido store I used to haunt in order to keep tabs on (and score when pocketbook ready) the original Zen. A relationship based on one common interest and behavior that could be interpreted as stalking could have come to a bad result, of course. Fortunately, the store owner thought I was funny.

I have to say, I was a bit jolted by the idea of older folks in particular being haunted by "false" memories of fragrance that are actually true. Smell is so powerful for is actually used in treatment/therapy sometimes...kinda...sad. And nefarious. First step in altering your memory. I unlike. Could be *me* in a few decades. I double unlike.

Your tidbit to Kathy is a good one. Quick, make an app. Earn some money for your next trip to the kiosk!

Olfacta said...

Brian -- I too have wondered about the SA's. But, truly, why should they care? It's a job in a shop. My guess is that the way to be promoted is to sell lots and lots of whatever, with few to no returns, and a high percentage of push list sales. In this case, the less the SA knows, the better for him or (usually) her.

Your description of screechy, one-dimensional scents is right, too, along with manufactured music, short little books, movies starring pyrotechnics and explosions, and so on. Meh,to all of it.

KathyT said...

Thank you Brian for the primer for dating fragrances. I've been tempted by a few items at the mall discount kiosk, but I'd like to know if I'm getting one of the newer versions. I am on the hunt for the original version of Pure Poison, and I will go out armed with your instructions. It would be really nice if there was a production date on it, wouldn't it??!

And I agree with you that there are some great SAs out there, but so many of them are numbers driven that they can't afford to give you an honest assessment. It is really infuriating to be told that a particular fragrance doesn't exist because they don't stock it.

Anonymous said...

I was hired as a Lancome counter manager a few years back & that experience explains why the SA's don't know squat. I was one of them! I was an out out of work Graphic Artist who needed a job ASAP so I very unhappily went to one of our larger department stores to put in an application. I'd sold clothes & gifts retail while in college so I thought this would tide me over. They offered me the position in Lancome even though I told them I had no experience selling cosmetics. They told me I'd get great training so I took the job. What a waste of 3 months! No training!! On the bright side, I did get introduced to Magie Noire even though the other associated threatened violence if I wore it around them. SO SAD! And it's true that they only want you to sell the newest & most expensive with as few returns as possible. I sucked at the job. I refuse to let an 80 year old woman buy $200 wrinkle cream convinced it will get rid of her wrinkles. It got even better when I went back a year later to pick up a bottle of Magie Noire & the new associate had never heard of it. She actually said, "I don't think that's our fragrance." I wanted to scream! As God is my witness, I'll never work retail again!!

ahsumaker said...

Brian, just a perfect post. Thank you for saying it.

I wish I could establish a positive relationship with a knowledgable SA. I've met a couple who have worked in the industry for a while and know their stuff. And are willing to be candid with me once I've proven I know my stuff. But I'm probably their nightmare client too -- I rarely pay retail for anything, I buy infrequently, and these days, I'm mostly buying vintage, and they can't sell me vintage, even if we can bemoan the demise of the great classics together. That's not exactly a formula for a long-term SA-customer relationship.

Anonymous said...

As I read your post, I am idly watching a movie on French tv -- an old Alain Delon and Gerard Depardieu movie, Deux Hommes Dans La Ville. It is an achingly beautiful and sad film, from a time long past. Delon is in his prime, and heartbreakingly handsome.

Alain Delon is now, thanks to very effective marketing, inextricably intertwined with Eau Sauvage, a fragrance that has very powerful memories for me. Smelling it is like capturing lost time, pure magic.

And your sad post reminds me that I read somewhere that Eau Sauvage has been reformulated... do you know anything about it Brian?

The thought of losing Eau Sauvage is as frustratingly sad as this movie...


Unknown said...

Wow this really rings true with me, being in my fifties and a life-long Mitsouko lover...some years back I grabbed my usual bottle when on an infrequent trip to Sydney, and it - smelled - funny -and ...I blamed myself for getting old!!That really sucks as my teenager would say!
However now I'm a sort of matron I can get away with a lot on my ambushes to Sydney, I just tell the girls I'm a perfumaholic and they leave me alone. Some girls even let me fill up my own samples.
And some you can see really strike a chord, they WANT to talk about all the nuances and passions, I had a wonderful experience in David Jones last year, her face just lit up, because I think her passion, even working in the perfume corner, was a bit of a secret!
I would not say the same tho' when you get out on the floor amongst Dior and Chanel...
However, that funny bottle of Mitsouko actually was a pivot in refiring my perfume obsession!