[Advance warning: this is a continuation of yesterday's rant, and it is even more grumpy and long-winded. You might best leave now and come back tomorrow, when we'll have a cheerful review of something or another.]
So. There were apparently 205 fragrance releases in 1996; this year, we are expecting 800. Perfumes are being developed and brought to market at an increasingly rapid pace, and fragrance companies are having to find ever more innovative ways to get consumer attention. But time stands still in one crucial area: retailing.
If you were to have been standing at a perfume counter in a mid-tier department store sometime in say, 1987, and through some miracle of technology and fate, you were frozen in time, only to be brought back to life in the exact same spot in 2007, you'd be more likely to suffer from boredom than future shock. Yes, your local Hecht Co. (or Strawbridges, or whatever) is now a Macy's. Yes, there is more product on the counters. But other than that, everything would look reassuringly familiar.
There are the same glass display cases, neatly arranged in a square so that the clerks can stand behind them and chat (and yes, 20 years later, they are still chatting away and pointedly ignoring you). There are the perfumes neatly arranged inside the glass cases. There are the tester bottles on their mirror trays, there are the gift-with-purchase specials, and the stacks of coffret sets. There are the bright lights, the white walls and tile floors.
It may have looked modern and inviting in 1987, now it looks mind-numbingly stale. It is hard to imagine finding anything special, much less sexy, in such uninspired surroundings, and the genericness has a kind of levelling effect on the individual brands. Yes, Chanel no. 5, with its long and venerable history, may have the right to thumb its nose at the upstart Clinique Happy across the way, but the visual display at the Chanel counter is only marginally more elegant than Clinique's. They both look stodgy and uninviting. The only way you could make the situation less congenial for selling perfume is to place the employees on commission, then offer them special bonuses for pushing certain scents. Check.
Of course, a few of the higher end stores have loosened things up a bit. Some have done away with the glass counters, or arranged them in new shapes. But even the swankest department stores do little to encourage customers to interact with the product (and the staff) in new ways. Walk into uber-hip Barneys in New York: you might as well be at Macy's. The customers are a little better dressed, and the fragrance selection is more interesting (and expensive), but there is the same familiar counter cluttered with testers, with the clerks standing behind chatting. How nice it is to step around the corner into the lovely little Frederic Malle boutique: the scent columns! The desk and chairs! The pictures of perfumers on the wall! The helpful staff! It looks different, and it looks fun. It is fun.
Of course, even in the 'burbs, we do have a few more shopping options now than we did in 1987. There is Sephora, where the perfumes are on shelves along the aisles, and you can play with the testers all you like; nobody will interrupt you to ask what kind of fragrance you like, only to tell you after you answer "Chanel no. 5" that you really must try Baby Phat Golden Goddess. The cheerful staff will make you a sample of anything you want. It is almost heaven.
Almost heaven, because let's face it: even Sephora, which seemed so refreshingly new when they first hit the US, is starting to look dated. The aisles are too narrow and crowded, the staff are not exactly experts on perfume, and the fragrance selection is pretty much slanted towards what they think a 20 year old might buy. What I want is a Sephora for grown-ups.
I saw a glimmer of hope in the C.O. Bigelow store that recently opened in my local mall. The fragrance display is almost perfect: the testers are on tables in the center. They are arranged tastefully (no clutter!) by fragrance family instead of by brand. There are actually little signs with information about the perfumes. Imagine that — providing information for the customer! The merchandise is on shelves on the surrounding walls. The selection is small, but interesting: Acqua di Parma, L'Artisan, Antonia's Flowers, Floris, a few others.
What C.O. Bigelow lacks, besides a larger selection, is personality. The store looks dull, dull, dull. In fact, it looks exactly like what it is: a conglomerate that has purchased the rights to the name of a historic apothecary in the hopes that some of the "authenticity" will convey. It comes as no surprise that the same conglomerate owns Bath & Body Works, because the stores look more alike than not, and for that matter, if you threw in a few pots & pans, you could as easily be in Williams & Sonoma, the design aesthetic is that monotonous. I want to be able to buy L'Artisan in my local mall, but I can't think it serves L'Artisan well to be sold in such a sterile environment.
Until something better comes along, I'll continue shopping at C.O. Bigelow, Sephora, and yes, even Macy's. But I'm hoping something better will come along soon, and it is hard to see how customers will be found for those 800 new scents otherwise.
Note: image of Strawbridge & Clothier department store, Philadelphia, via wikipedia.