One Thousand Scents

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Disappointments

Yesterday I was in Shoppers Drug Mart, the local hyperdrugstore, which is among other things the closest we have in these parts to a perfume boutique. I wasn't there to try or buy fragrances, but since you have to pass through the boutique section to get into the main part of the store, I always end up checking out their goods anyway.

Near the door was a big conspicuous display of the new Yves Saint Laurent Homme flanker, La Nuit De L'Homme. The original was tragically boring, but the new one had a little promise, based on the spritzed blotter I had under my nose: a warm spicy oriental with an edge to it. I went to the counter and asked if there might be a sample available (since I can't tell if something is any good without wearing it on my skin, and I can't spray it directly on my skin when I'm out with Jim).

"No. Sorry." The saleswoman was as curt as could be without being outright rude, and then she just turned to the next customer, and that was that.

I don't expect groveling obeisance, and I understand that she's making a commission and doesn't necessarily want to spend a lot of time with a customer who isn't likely to buy anything then and there. But customers aren't a one-time deal; they come back, and they remember how they've been treated in the past. Even if I wasn't a number in her sales book that day, it might have occurred to her that samples are the best--practically the only--way to sell fragrance, and that even if she didn't have any, it might behoove her to be a little nicer to customers. "Oh, no, I'm sorry, we didn't get any," even if it's a lie, is not going to cost her anything to say.

I think I am going to start doing what some of the more brazen perfume addicts do: carry around vials and make up my own samples from the testers. I couldn't have done it right then (because I couldn't get any on my skin), but it seems it's the only way I'm ever going to get to try anything.

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Shoppers also had a whole bunch of mass-market scents for $9.99 each, the drugstore version of the record store's markdown bin, and when my eyes lit on a few bottles of Giorgio Red, I was thrilled. I remember when it was launched in 1989: it was a huge, genre-mashing fruity floral chypre oriental with a mass of blackcurrant and peach in the top, a gigantic bouquet of flowers made sultry with oriental notes in the middle, and a dark, throbbing chypre base. Very strong, of course, but that was the way of fragrance in the second half of the eighties. The composition was said to have 672 elements, and that seems entirely possible, if a little excessive and show-offy. It was nothing short of astonishing.

One of the boxes was, naturally enough, open already, because people are going to want to smell what they're buying before they buy it. (I never do this: I'm not going to unwrap a box and spray the contents, because then nobody will ever buy it, and I think that's wrong. But if someone's already opened one, I have no compunction about taking advantage of the open box.) One sniff was all it took to tell me that Red had been disastrously reformulated at some point in the last twenty years. It now has that sharp fresh top note that the new version of Lancôme Trésor also has. There's fruit there, but it's not the same: it smells thoroughly synthetic, and not even in a good way. I didn't bother with any more of the scent, and won't. That first sniff told me everything I needed to know. What it was, it isn't any more. It's been destroyed.

I cannot understand this perpetual reformulation. I understand that companies have to tinker with scents over the years: a particular ingredient becomes unavailable, the cost of making the original formula is simply too high for the price point, tastes have changed and the scent seems to need a little updating. I don't necessarily like that, but I understand it. However, when a scent is completely changed, when it no longer bears any resemblance to its precursor, why keep the original name and packaging? Old customers will try it, discover that it's something completely different, and disdain it. New customers don't have any allegiance to the old product, so that isn't a selling point for them. Who wins?

The manufacturer, I guess, who doesn't have to pay for new package design and production. But everyone else loses.

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