By definition, I should think, the true perfumista wants to try everything, or at least, very nearly everything. If you're lucky (much luckier than I) you can afford to just buy all the latest perfumes unsniffed, but the rest of us have to make do with samples. Here are a few tips for getting your hands on samples of the latest fragrances:
Beg at brick 'n mortar stores
For many fragrances, especially new mainstream releases, about the only way to get a sample is to go to a store in-person and ask for one. Nordstrom and Sephora top my list of the absolute best foraging grounds: both stores will happily give you a carded sample (i.e., a sample from the manufacturer, usually attached to a card or folded enclosure) if they have one; if they don't, they will happily decant a sample for you. Nordstrom uses little glass vials; Sephora uses plastic atomizers. Being given a sample on demand makes me inordinately happy; if I was the sort of person willing to pay full price for a bottle of fragrance, I would do all my perfume-buying at Nordstrom and Sephora. As I am most emphatically not the sort of person willing to pay full price for perfume when I don't have to, I try to buy all my other makeup and beauty things at those stores.
Unfortunately, the "free samples on demand" policy is pretty much limited to those two stores; nobody else comes even close to that level of customer service. Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus (at least, my local stores) will usually give a carded sample if they have one, but of course, they don’t always have them. I have never managed to cadge a single carded sample out of Macy's or Lord & Taylor.
If you have no shame (and why have shame?) you can carry empty glass vials with you and ask if the store will allow you to make your own sample. This is rather hit or miss, but in general, I find the higher-end stores are much more likely to give permission than the lower-end stores. Bergdorf Goodman has allowed me to make samples any number of times, so have Saks, Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Takashimaya and Bloomingdales. Once, and once only, I was given permission to make samples at my local Macy's, and within minutes a manager materialized from out of nowhere and very nearly threw my friend and I out of the store. Thanks, Macy’s!
Smaller stores, again, are hit or miss. The Coach boutique I visited last month was passing out samples of their new fragrance to anyone who asked. Hermès is generally very nice about samples when they have them, especially at the flagship store in New York. L’Occitane gives them out when they have them, but they almost never do have them.
Beg or buy directly from the manufacturer
Another option, if the company has a website, is to write and ask if they will send you a sample. Some will, some won’t, but it is always worth a try. Some of the larger companies post free sample offers online right around the time a fragrance is launched. Unfortunately, they often take 4-6 weeks to mail them, and when they do, what you get is frequently one of those little liquid “bubbles” on a card or a pre-moistened towelette. I find either very nearly as useless as a magazine scent strip.
Another tip: if you find a website specifically devoted to an upcoming fragrance release, take the time to enter your name and address if there is a place to do so. When Hermès launched Terre d’Hermès, their teaser website allowed you to enter a name and address (and it was not at all clear what for), if you did, you received a 10 ml miniature bottle of the fragrance after it was released.
Some of the niche lines sell samples of their products online. A no doubt far-from-complete list: Abinoam, Aftelier, Amouage, Antonia's Flowers, Anya's Garden, Apothia, AromaM, Art of Perfumery, Ava Luxe, Ayala Moriel, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, CB I Hate Perfume, Creative Scentualization, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Eadward, Ebba, Fresh Scents by Terri, Ineke, Lagniappe Oaks, La Via del Profumo, Les Nez, Liz Zorn, Miller Harris, Miriam Mirani (Aqaba), Ormonde Jayne, Penhaligons (see their "Fragrance Library", picture at top right), Rich Hippie, Sonoma Scent Studio, Strange Invisible Perfumes, Tauer Perfumes.
Buy samples from online boutiques
There are very few online stores selling samples of mainstream scents, but check Beauty Encounter and Parfums Raffy (Raffy also carries some niche brands). Both of these stores sell carded samples only.
If it’s niche fragrances you’re after, you’re in luck – there are lots of great online boutiques with sample programs: try Aedes (7 samples for $15), Beauty Cafe (5 samples for $5, but only with an order), Beautyhabit (6 samples for $11), First-in-Fragrance (Germany, individually priced), La Crème Beauty (8 samples for $15), Les Senteurs (London, 6 samples for £15), Luckyscent (samples individually priced). All of these stores will send carded samples when they have them in stock, when they don’t, they’ll send you a decanted sample vial if they can. Most of these stores ask that you provide one or two alternates in case they don't have all of the fragrances you're looking for.
Buy them on ebay
There are any number of ebay sellers and stores devoted to selling decants and samples of fragrances, both niche and mainstream. You won't find everything on ebay, but you'll find a pretty decent selection ranging from the latest celebrity launches to the hard-to-find exclusives from Serge Lutens. If they don't have the fragrance you want, try entering a "Favorite Search" so that ebay will send you an email when your item comes up for sale.
I have had very good luck on ebay, but I am sure some stores/sellers are better than others. Checking a seller’s feedback is one obvious way to make sure you’re dealing with someone reputable; another is to post a query on one of the fragrance forums.
[Update: shortly after I wrote this article, new ebay rules halted the sale of decanted fragrances. Carded samples and partial bottles can still be found, but the selection is nothing like it once was.]
Once you have a bunch of samples, you can trade them for more by swapping. Swapping article is coming up next week!
Please comment if you know of any other stores or manufacturers with sample programs, or if you have other advice for obtaining samples.
Update 2: here are a few more sources for samples:
Mainstream samples ~ Scentmonkey.
Niche perfume lines ~ Anne Pliska, Gendarme, L'Artisan, Michael Storer, Histoires de Parfums, Les Parfums de Rosine. Yves Rocher does not sell samples per se, but their miniatures are very reasonably priced.
Update 3: here, at long last, is the article on swapping perfume.