Virtual notes: tips for shopping for perfume online


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Illustration by Photo Illustration by The Globe

The fragrance landscape has shifted dramatically in the past few years. When pandemic lockdowns cancelled traditional in-store sampling opportunities, it spurred growth of alternate methods of discovery, moving perfume culture even more online.

Shopping soon followed: A decade ago, online purchases were about 12 per cent of total fragrance sales for home and body. Today, e-commerce captures a third of all personal and home fragrance purchases, according to market research firm Kline’s July, 2023, report. (Statista puts the figure at 773 million global consumers who now rely on e-commerce platforms to buy their favourite perfumes.)

At the same time, social media has democratized perfume recommendation and transformed peer review into a narrative experience. On Instagram, devotees of the #PerfumeLovers hashtag drive awareness of the new and niche, while on TikTok, established scents and opinionated content creators bypass brand marketing strategies. In a Statista study conducted between 2022 and 2023, usage of the hashtag #PerfumeTok on TikTok grew by 453 per cent, while usage of #PerfumeTikTok increased by almost 280 per cent (that’s 2.8 billion and 6.4 billion views, respectively, worldwide).

There’s just one tiny problem: You still can’t smell the internet.

Until the day comes when digital smell technology exists, olfactory communication must be done through other means. Just as virtual fitting rooms now come complete with avatars, creative perfume sites are attempting to solve that pain point well enough to spur confident blind buying.

There are several ways to approach the subjective and idiosyncratic world of fragrance online, for amateurs and aficionados alike. One place to start navigating the more than 45,000 fragrances already on the market (and hundreds of new launches every year), is online community is Fragrantica. It’s the Letterboxd of scent, indexing and graphing the top, middle and base notes for every perfume and cologne. It includes a section for members to keep track of their scents and boasts comment forums that rival Reddit in their candour.

The next step is to take stock of what you already have. Scents you’ve loved in the past likely share characteristics and notes. With fragrance literacy on an upswing, online discovery in this realm is now largely self-guided. Education is key: Millennial fragrance brand Phlur was relaunched by influencer Chriselle Lim last year with new branding, poetic names ripe for virality (such as its bestselling Missing Person), eye-catching coloured juice that’s catnip to TikTokers and a handy glossary of perfumery terminology.

The most useful tools, however, tend to come from multibrand online retailers. Twisted Lily’s Match It tool, for example, is powered by data from international perfume classification expert and Fragrance Wheel creator Michael Edwards. By categorizing known scents according to their categories and notes, Match It generates niche suggestions according to customers’ existing favourites by well-known brands.

Through their e-commerce sites, brick and mortar retailers including L.A. and New York’s Scent Bar and Montreal’s Etiket are likewise thriving thanks to educational tools. In addition to indexing scents by notes, their curated sample packs highlight interesting and top-rated fragrances on a theme – gourmand, oud, citrus and so on – from across the various niche brands they carry. They also host periodic sniff-along livestreams. London-based fragrance shop Perfumer H follows this template, organizing its webstore by traditional fragrance family, then further subdividing the search features by scent notes

Magazines, with their scent strips and sachets, were once the main distribution channel for sampling. They were also the main purveyor of beloved personality quizzes that matched psychographic data to perfume offerings. Fragrance brands have taken up that slack to approximate taste in scent.

At the venerable British Penhaligon’s, for example, the online fragrance profiling tool poses a series of intimate and entertaining questions about general preferences (picnic or city jaunt?) and personality traits before suggesting a scent. Purchases from its new Potions & Remedies collection include a sample of the same scent to test before opening the full-size fragrance (just in case). Le Labo’s prepurchase interview is an esoteric Proust questionnaire. Portland-based indie brand Imaginary Authors leans into its literary underpinnings with a playful quiz about light reading, mysteries and plot twists. Its sample sets are packaged accordingly, as “beach reads” or “cozies.”

Communicating the nature of scent through language is a perennial challenge, both online and off. Where words fail, visuals act as cues and can enhance confidence in an online purchase by building an emotional connection. Established brands have the lead here, creating immersive experiences that reflect the essence of the fragrance, beginning with bottle design, packaging and the juice itself as well as creating olfactory visual exploration. Loewe’s latest home scent campaign does this through videos of British celebrity gardener Charlie McCormick (and his chickens), digging the soil at his parsonage vegetable garden in Dorset, to conjure the smell of earthy green tomato leaf and their other nature-inspired Elixir fragrances.

Another example is Harry Styles’s lifestyle brand Pleasing, which launched fragrance this November with a trio called Closeness, Rivulets, and Bright, Hot. Classic peel-off fragrance strip samples are now included in all the brand’s product orders. But before the fragrances’ debut, Pleasing depended on visuals to promote their imminent arrival. Placeholder images were a series of grainy bottle close-ups, further abstracted by poetic copywriting aiming to paint a mental picture (for instance, Bright, Hot is about falling asleep under the blazing midday sun), true to the promise of being “inspired by our founder’s own experience with time, place and memory.” The elliptical imagery and sentence fragments like lyrics communicated so little beyond vibes, the juggernaut performer could have been teasing an album drop.

If that seems familiar, it’s also the strategy behind Victoria Beckham Beauty’s new collection launch of “fragrances that capture Victoria’s recollections of times and places.” The scents mix “personal yet universal associations” that coyly reference eras on Beckham’s tabloid timeline. Intuiting what these notorious moments might smell like requires being fluent in celebrity pop-culture history.

Beckham’s Portofino ‘97 alludes to a heady yachting vacation on the Italian Riviera during her courtship with husband, David. Suite 302 evokes clandestine early-aughts paparazzi snaps. The brand’s website offers up a quiz with both keywords (such as euphoric, renewal) and images (of artfully tousled white sheets and rock crystal formations) and after a few quick clicks, recommends San Ysidro Drive (an homage to the Beverly Hills mansion address that was their home while soccer legend David was playing for L.A. Galaxy), because the amber rose scent “embodies the healing essence of mindfulness” she experienced there.

There’s an argument that Beckham’s strong visual content and sophisticated sensory experiences create a memorable enough digital fragrance moment to generate a sale. (A virtually risk-free $40 discovery set that comes which a $30 credit toward any full-size fragrance also helps.) The personal can resonate as universal by appealing to imagination and tapping into the way scent connects with other human experiences. Or as Estée Lauder once put it, “fragrance exists in the mind, not just the senses.”



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