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Fashion & Style
Fragrance Spritzers Hold Their Fire
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Some stores are eliminating fragrance spritzers in the aisle.
Published: April 15, 2011
PAMELA VAILE is no fan of the swarm of spray-happy salesclerks who lie in wait at many department stores, all of them eager to douse passers-by with a sample of a fragrance that they are sure the shoppers will totally, absolutely love once they get a whiff. “I myself will not walk through that main aisle where all the spritzers are,” she said. “I can’t stand that.”
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Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
There are now a variety of ways to obtain a sample of a fragrance, via  swatches, vials or clerks hoiding a bottle.
Ms. Vaile is herself a fragrance marketer, part of a billion-dollar global industry that for decades has relied on assertive demonstrators to push their products. But Ms. Vaile, whose firm recently orchestrated the splashy debut of Kate Walsh’s Boyfriend on HSN and Sephora (which included coy, intimate Web videos), argues that “accosting a consumer with your product doesn’t convey luxury.”
Fragrance demonstrators go back at least to the 1950s, when women were just starting to buy fragrances for themselves; previously, men gave gifts of fragrance and flowers, said Stephan Kanlian, the chairman of the master’s program in cosmetics and fragrance marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology​. The novelty of spritzers effectively enticed women to stray from their signature scent to buy something new, he said.
But today there’s growing recognition in the industry that aggressive spritzing offends too many potential customers. “It’s gone from being something that was a little bit fun, and something you could avoid since there weren’t that many of them, to feeling like you’re dodging bullets all the time,” said Ann Gottlieb, a marketer who has shepherded fine fragrances from brands like Dior and Marc Jacobs.
At a handful of department stores, fragrance demonstrators who pounce, spray and sell hard are being tamed. They may still flood the floor for debuts and other special events, but they are being gradually replaced by salesclerks who actually ask customers what scents they prefer and — gasp — listen to the reply.
These days, “advice” is the “it” word among fragrance retailers, connoting clerks who offer professorial knowledge rather than crass hustling of the latest must-have flacon.
By summer, Nordstrom plans to have eliminated its brand-hired fragrance models in favor of on-staff fragrance advisers, in the vein of its in-house fashion stylists who gain the trust of customers with their helpful counsel.
These advisers will ask customers what they like (floral? woody-oriental?), then offer a range from Estée Lauder to Jo Malone. Nordstrom is so committed to not pressuring its clientele that a clerk might send customers home with samples to try at their leisure with a promise to follow up.
They end up “giving the consumer what’s right for her, not what we think is right for her,” said Laurie Black, the executive vice president for cosmetics at Nordstrom.
It’s a big change for an industry whose status quo has been undereducated models imploring passers-by to try, say, Rihanna​’s Reb’l Fleur simply because it’s “hot.”
Mr. Kanlian invoked the restaurant business. “When you ask a waiter, ‘What’s great tonight?’ you don’t want their response to be, ‘We sell a lot of the chicken,’ ” he said. “What you really want is that person to say: ‘If you never had it, you must have the lamb. We source it from a special place.’ ”
Lord & Taylor now limits the number of brand-hired fragrance demonstrators in order to provide an experience that is “as pleasurable, as easy, as not demanding as possible,” said Barbara Zinn-Moore, the company’s senior vice president for cosmetics. “We don’t want to have dueling spritzers.”
The idea is to offer a laid-back environment; someone who stops to check out a cute bottle might be given a fragrant grosgrain ribbon and invited to return if she’s intrigued, Ms. Zinn-Moore said, adding “Now we have our own people trained by Lord & Taylor, and they can take a consumer 360 degrees through all the brands.”
Many department stores now advise fragrance demonstrators to spray blotter paper, instead of wrists, an acknowledgment that they had a reputation as nuisances. (They still have that reputation to live down: ABC’s “Modern Family” had a December episode that featured a demonstrator who preemptively spritzed a character’s face.)
At Bloomingdale’s, Howard Kreitzman, the vice president for fragrance, said that the store’s policy at least as long as the seven years he’s been on staff has been to “spray the blotter, not spray the customer,” adding, “We don’t permit them to chase people down the line and spray them like the old cartoon. That’s not how we do it anymore.”
Other experts say the problem isn’t where the juice is sprayed, but the cut-to-the-chase way it is, with little to no seductive tidbits about a fragrance’s origins or notes. “A lot of people avoid the department,” said Rochelle Bloom, the president of the Fragrance Foundation, which has a certification program to educate fragrance sales specialists. “It’s this kind of hustle.”
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A version of this article appeared in print on April 17, 2011, on page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: Fragrance Spritzers Hold Their Fire.
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