I hate malls, and my neck of the woods is conspicuously lacking in fabulous little niche perfume stores, so I don't go perfume shopping very often. When I do make my semi-regular pilgrimage to the mall, my system is simple: I walk in a store, look around for any new fragrances I might not have smelled yet, and perhaps spray a few things on blotters (or more rarely, on skin). If I've got an uncontrollable lemming, I might actually buy something, but otherwise, I collect what samples I can and leave — as any perfumista knows, it's best to live with a fragrance for a few days before you invest any money. My absolute favorite stores are those that facilitate this system: namely, Nordstrom and Sephora. If I'm going to pay full retail price for something, I always try to buy it at one of those two stores.
When I shop online, I want to do pretty much the same thing: walk in, find out what's new, and determine if there's anything I might be interested in smelling. The niche stores, by necessity, cater to customers like me. Almost every niche store online offers a way for customers to see what's arrived in the store since the last time they were there. By and large, they also offer decent fragrance descriptions, and make it possible for customers to have samples sent in the mail.
Chain stores specializing in mainstream fragrances aren't quite so on the ball. Why this should be so is entirely mysterious to me given the number of customers who do most or all of their shopping online, but that's the state of things. Generally, perfumes are going to cost the same at all of these stores*, so there's no sense in comparison shopping and you might as well shop wherever it's convenient (or wherever they're offering free shipping). Here's my ranking of the online stores:
Nordstrom: how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Nordstrom's online beauty counter is my all-time favorite. There is a lovely "What's New" page in which all the items are sorted by date of arrival (so simple! so helpful! yet nobody else can figure out how to do it). There's an easy-to-use facility allowing you to shop by brand, by price, by fragrance notes, even by "lifestyle". It's all clean, the images are clear, and it's a breeze to navigate. Nordstrom online is just like Nordstrom in brick 'n mortar — they "get it" in a way that other stores simply don't.
The one area in which Nordstrom fails to deliver is in the fragrance descriptions, which are woefully short, and frequently fail to provide fragrance notes or give any clues whatsoever about what the fragrance might smell like.
Dillards: Dillards has a "What's New" facility. It isn't sorted by date of arrival so if you shop frequently, you'll have to look at the same things over and over, but still, it's better than nothing. I don't have a Dillards store near me so I don't know much about them, but they've got a pretty good selection online, including some hard-to-find brands like Mandarina Duck, Miller Harris, Jesus del Pozo and Tous, and they're about the only place where you can find Givenchy Organza Indecence in the original bottle. There is a function allowing you to shop by one of four fragrance families. The fragrance descriptions are so-so.
Macy's: I pretty much hate Macy's in real life, but their virtual store is not half bad. They do have a "New Arrivals" section (currently hidden under the "Women" and "Men" sections of the fragrance counter) but they don't appear to keep it updated consistently — sometimes new fragrances can be found under their brand page long before they appear in the New Arrivals section, and as with Dillards, you can't sort by "newness". You can also shop by brand or fragrance family, and there are separate pages for celebrity fragrances and designer fragrances. In general, the store isn't as easy to navigate as some others.
Sephora: Sephora's online store shines in terms of helping you find fragrances you might like — there's an elaborate "Fragrance Finder" system allowing you to search by fragrances and notes you like, or by fragrance family. Sephora also does an excellent job of providing detailed fragrance descriptions, and they're the only store considered here that consistently provides a list of fragrance notes. But Sephora's online store is annoying in other ways. First, there's a "What's New" page, but it only includes a seemingly random selection of their new fragrances. If you really want to know if they've got something recent, you've got to check the individual brand pages. They also have a a tendency to put new fragrances online before they actually have them in stock and ready to ship.
Sort Of Good
Neiman Marcus: There are two ways to shop for fragrance at Neiman Marcus, by brand or by fragrance family. If you shop by fragrance family, the new scents in each category are usually shown at or near the top of the list, but that means that if you want to know what's new, you'll have to check each fragrance family separately. The online store is otherwise fine, but has a sort of stodgy feel that neatly replicates the experience of shopping at my local Neiman Marcus.
Not So Good
Bloomingdales: There's no way to see what's new and there's no facility to help you find fragrances you might like: you can shop by brand or not shop at all. The fragrance descriptions are about the same as elsewhere.
Lord and Taylor: There is a facility that supposedly sorts the women's fragrances by Price or by New, but sorting by new doesn't seem to accomplish anything (to give just one example, Juicy Couture's latest, Viva La Juicy, is still listed after their first scent).
Saks Fifth Avenue: You can shop by brand or by concentration (although why anybody would want to see the Eau de Toilette and the Eau de Parfum separately is beyond me). Many scents which are carried in the Saks stores are not available online, and this is true even of fragrances which are available online elsewhere.
Ulta: You can shop by brand, or you can sort by popularity, price or fragrance concentration. To me, Ulta's brick 'n mortar stores have the feeling of a discount chain without the benefit of the discount chain prices; the online store has the exact same feeling.
And the poll: what are your criteria for a good online (mainstream) perfume store, and which stores are your favorites?
* Which is not to say you can't buy mainstream perfume at a discount online, but that's a subject for another day.