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Will it ever be easy to sell fragrance online?

Antony Hawman
21 April 2021

Selling beauty online has always been challenging for brands and retailers.  Needing to rely on skincare descriptions, 2D colour swatches and customer reviews, can end in a disappointing customer experience and a returned product, which is problematic for the bottom line and for the environment.

Add fragrance into the mix and it becomes even more of a minefield. Descriptions of base, middle and top notes can go so far to illustrate a scent but unless you’re Frederick Malle, who really knows how to interpret those lists? Fragrance is such a personal choice; online descriptions rarely match what the consumer conjures up in their mind. This is not the fault of the brand by the way, for example, I’m sure if you asked 10 people to translate Jo Malone’s Wood Sage & Sea Salt Cologne’s online description: “Escape the everyday along the windswept shore. Waves breaking white, the air fresh with sea salt and spray. Alive with the mineral scent of the rugged cliffs” - they’d all give very different answers.

Brands do their very best to lead you to imagine that by just one spritz you can be taking a leisurely stroll in a sun soaked Sicilian lemon grove, only to receive the product and have the reality be more "a day spent spring-cleaning with Cif".

 “1 man’s Creed Aventus is another man’s Hai Karate after all”

Having spent almost three years in the world of beauty sampling as Brand Director on the launch team of Birchbox, and more years later consulting on sampling strategies for brands including, Latest in Beauty, GQ and Refinery29, the business of "surprise & delight" (that’s trial, to you and me) and the data-driven analysis it provides, has always interested me greatly.

The power of seeing online reviews and sales-conversion data almost immediately after sending the sample to a subscriber was insightful and rather thrilling. One little sample would work across so many verticals that other marketing and advertising channels could only wish for, such as garnering data pre-product launch, driving brand awareness, invigorating a SKU that had maybe fallen off the bestseller list and of course, launching a brand into a global market.

Before the beauty box subscription craze, sampling was still a basic "spray and pray" marketing channel. It wasn’t a sophisticated mechanic, which meant a lot of waste and low conversion to sale rates. Brands had to reply on a basic "on-counter" and "in-magazine" sampling strategies to drive trial to a prospective consumer. The main obstacle was the lack of targeting. Marketing teams were shooting in the dark and left to ponder – What do we know about this consumer? Are they already buying this product? Does their wallet size even allow for a conversion? All of these questions needed to be answered and were, by a smarter, more dynamic way to sample, enter the beauty box phenomenon

Sample subscription services such as Birchbox (the pioneer, having started the craze back in 2010), GlossyBox and Ipsy gave brands access to a "qualified consumer" via curated boxes through their letterbox containing samples based on the subscriber’s lifestyles, wants and needs using information given via a beauty profile completed at the sign-up stage. Not only did this "surprise & delight" the recipient, but it also gave the brands invaluable insights to allow them to target potential customers and up-sell loyal advocates with their products.



Although subscription services were a God-send for the online beauty industry, fragrance still remained tricky to sample due to its personal-style nature. Ticking the "I like floral" box on a beauty profile really didn’t give too much insight and left consumers still needing to go in-store to trial.

With 2020’s lockdown closing non-essential retail for almost a year, we had no choice but to buy our beauty and fragrances online. We were now staying home 24/7 and wanted to make ourselves and our homes feel a little more joyous by lighting a Diptyque candle here and there and spritzing a little DS & Durga on our pulse points while we watched another episode of Call my Agent.

Data from the NPD Group in September 2020, stated that the prestige fragrance market reported sales of £1.3 billion in 2019 and post-lockdown, since the reopening of non-essential retail stores in June 2020, fragrance had recovered the fastest of all prestige beauty categories.

Before lockdown, I would spend an obscene amount of time at the Liberty beauty room spritzing and trialling new scents and taking home the sample cards to make sure the dry-down remained appealing and then, complete my purchase online. Fast forward to March 2020 and with no way of trialling fragrance in-store, brands had to quickly step up their sampling game to protect sales of fragrance. As you’d expect, the market leaders were the quickest to act.  DS & Durga, Byredo, Frederic Malle, Diptyque and Loewe all launched fragrance "discovery sets" via their e-commerce platforms that could be purchased for a small, affordable fee and delivered direct to the home. Genius eh? Not so fast, then came Brexit to spoil the fun. Brands such as Loewe, who distribute out of their DC in the EU, were now scuppered by shipping rules that meant they could only offer free shipping for orders over €100 to the UK. Even a fragrance obsessive such as myself would be mad to pay €15 for shipping on a €15 sample box.

Byredo, Loewe and DS & Durga’s discovery sets


Speaking recently to Amanda Morgan, Managing Director, UK at Diptyque, she told me about the innovations Diptyque has created to drive fragrance sales online.

Choosing a new fragrance can be challenging when shopping online, as it’s quite different to being physically in a store being able to smell the products and also speak to the brand ambassadors.

"At Diptyque we learnt through the pandemic that we needed to enhance our online experience and create a more fluid dynamic between the physical space and online. We now offer virtual appointments, whereby you can book a time convenient to you and speak directly to the boutique teams, allowing them to ask questions to obtain a more concise fragrance profile, therefore allowing an easier recommendation process. We also send samples of the same fragrance purchased, so that the consumer can try the sample size to ensure they love it, if they’re not sure, they can return it which is a free of charge process.

"We have also recently been hosting online masterclasses, where our customers can enjoy a fun and educational interactive virtual event covering topics such as home scenting, table scaping, gifting and choosing your perfect fragrance.

"Even when boutiques open to customers, we predict many will still enjoy the online experience and we will continue to innovate our services to answer to our client’s needs.”

Diptyque’s online events


Large fragrance houses and beauty conglomerates are set up to create samples with ease, but what about SMEs who might not be able to manufacture at scale or have the distribution channels to get into people’s homes?

A new subscription service has launched solely for niche and independent fragrance brands. HOOHAA will offer its subscribers the option to choose from three edits,  they then select 10ml vials of fragrances from your chosen edit which they then deliver through your letterbox every month. You can change the edit you receive at any time, as tastes and preferences inevitably develop and evolve.

When seeking brand partners to be part of the HOOHAA journey, there’s a truly inclusive selection process for small, independent, fragrance producers, who are pushing the creative boundaries of perfumery and disregarding binaries that had previously defined the market.

HOOHAA fragrance subscription service

Lorenzo Vasini, Founder & CEO, says: “Beauty has undergone extreme change and innovation over the past 5-10 years, and last year’s events have only accelerated what was already happening. From Birchbox to Glossier and the creation of infinite amounts of D2C brands. But fragrance as a sub-category has virtually stood still.

"It’s not that the products have stood still. Absolutely not, there are literally thousands of independent producers creating incredible products. But the way fragrance is curated, positioned, described, marketed and sold, in our opinion had to evolve, because today’s consumers have evolved. The new consumers of fragrance and beauty increasingly don’t recognise the standard men/women categorisation. And most of them certainly don’t understand what a note pyramid is! Combine that with the lack of f2f retail and you have a recipe for massive, rapid, online disruption. Which is where we come in.”

Until Apple creates the i-Spritz, I’ll still be researching my fragrances instore at Liberty, reviewing that all important dry-down and then completing my purchasing online, but these clever sample kits and subscription services are definitely making strides to break down the barrier to easy Ecommerce purchases.

*see Ts & Cs

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