Perfume

Quest for sweet smell of success

I’m on my way to Sweden this week, taking part in an expo where I’ll be showing off my fragrances to a new market, vying for the attention of 4 000 visitors while surrounded by 350 other exhibitors.

This journey has forced me to consider one of the most common commercial fragrance endeavours: merchandising, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “promoting the sale of goods especially by their presentation in retail outlets”.

In a world where at least one fragrance is purchased every second, there is a lot of strategising that goes into attracting the attention of the customer.

There are also reams of regulations to consider: the United States’ Federal Drug Administration dictates certain information must be present on a perfume bottle and box — and even dictates the size of the font and the panel location.

Navigating within the rules, fragrance houses are inventive and competitive to such a degree that even names are traded behind the scenes. When you walk into a department store you might see Bobbi Brown, La Mer, Jo Malone, Clinique, Tom Ford and MAC — all owned by the Estée Lauder Companies.

No wonder these brands have prime retail position — they are provided by a single distribution deal that would fulfil the needs of most retail beauty departments.

The largest brands have a shop-within-a-shop, where the brand enjoys a protected physical space, with independently trained staff, and where a customer can be exposed to only their product range. MAC is a great example of this, with its indie-pop culture of young creatives offering an experience that is as much part of your retail therapy as the actual cosmetics.

So just how much are we influenced by the size of the space dedicated to a brand? Research shows it gives confidence in the products. Consumers assume the products are of high quality and reliable if they are able to afford the real estate.

But remember: never purchase a fragrance that has been too brightly lit, as this damages it. Those open testers are sweating (and being damaged) on shelves lit with hot spotlighting to make bottles glitter and glow.

As a consumer and an independent manufacturer, I’m rather torn. Where do the incredible, interesting, niche brands find a home in this swamped, commercially driven landscape?

Hanneli Rupert’s Merchants on Long, a boutique store in Cape Town, is doing its bit by providing a refreshing playground for African consumer brands that are original, liberating and supportive of design.

A place where there is no homogenisation; where the customer is celebrated and understood: we no longer all want to be the same, smell the same or look the same. We are intelligent! We are discerning!

But how do we offer our niche wares to a wider audience? By being inventive and letting creativity shine through and by engaging artisans to collaborate on displays that are bold and unique.

Small and independent companies simply do not have the advertising budgets to compete with big companies, so they must be daring and dynamic, and showcase their vibrant ideas.

In Paris, Cannes and Miami, the high streets have started to look the same. Shiny luxury brand windows are cookie cutouts, failing to celebrate their situational diversity. There is some comfort in a brand you know, like the fragrance equivalent of a McDonald’s burger in a new city.

But too much control can be stifling and limiting, and there is a growing trend of shoppers who seek out the unusual rather than the merely conventional.