Talking to Perfume Salespeople: A Cautionary Tale

Last week, I offered some very silly suggestions as to how to avoid perfume salespeople. Many of the comments said something along the lines of “This is funny and all, but I’ve never seen perfume salespeople like that.” There are a few possible explanations for the discrepancy between our experiences. I am five feet tall and look about 15 years old, which is generally not a combination that screams “buying power”. Because of this, perfume salespeople might be less eager to cater to me than to a woman who is more obviously in a position to buy perfume.

But I stand by my point that in general, American perfume salespeople know very little about their products and are bewildered and/or annoyed by anyone who knows more. As support for my argument, I offer up my recent experience at Sephora. I welcome any comments agreeing with this point, disagreeing with this point, or making fun of me for being five feet tall.

First, allow me to introduce my boyfriend Drew, pictured here with our kitten Zelda Weinberg-Rosenberg.

He is a rugged Iowa man about to graduate from Johns Hopkins University. He has also been incredibly supportive of my interest in perfume, going so far as to travel with me to Grasse to tour the Fragonard and Molinard factories. Drew is relevant to this story because, despite having dated a perfume blogger for over a year, he does not wear any cologne. He owns one iPod-shaped bottle of Givenchy Play, which was given to him by his mother after she accidentally bought an extra one for her husband. When I received a coupon for 20% off at Sephora, I decided that it was time to buy him his very first scent.

You have to understand that I did not want to ask the Sephora saleswoman for help. We were desperate. We had gone through the entire selection of men’s fragrances at least twice. Drew found the generic aquatic men’s colognes boring (good boy!), which ruled out at least 3/4 of Sephora’s offerings. He was not quite ready for more untraditional offerings like Bvlgari Black or the Thierry Muglers. We both liked Hermès Eau d’Orange Verte, but it quickly became too sweet on his skin. Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male was both too sweet and too homoerotic for his tastes.

Eventually I decided that he should just try my fallback men’s fragrance, the delicious coffee-scented Rochas Man. But that phallic pine-cone bottle was nowhere to be found. I had seen Rochas Man at that very same Sephora only a few weeks earlier. It had to be there. Clearly it was just hiding in some cabinet or back room. (Recounting this story is like watching a horror movie: “THERE IS NO BACK ROOM! GET OUT OF THERE WHILE YOU’RE STILL ALIVE!”) So I stupidly broke my own rule and called a Sephora saleswoman over.

“Hi, we’re looking for Rochas Man.”

The saleswoman stared at us. She tilted her head slightly to the right to indicate her puzzlement. Drew has asked me to note that she was wearing copious amounts of purple eyeshadow.

“Rochas Man?”

“Yes. It’s the one in the bottle that looks like an upside-down pine cone. You know, Rochas Man.” 

The saleswoman narrowed her purple eyeshadow-coated eyes. Rochas Man? What kind of nonsense was that? Why were these bothersome vagrants trying to waste her time?

“I see. And how do you spell that?” 

Although it was already laughably clear that Rochas Man was a lost cause, I spelled it for her and continued to peruse the pitiful men’s section as we waited for her to check the computer. She returned in a few minutes with the bad news.

“I’m sorry, we’ve never carried that fragrance.” 

“But I saw it here just a few weeks ago.” 

“Hmm. Yeah, no, we don’t carry that. Maybe you were thinking of something else?”

The annoyance in her voice had been replaced by pity. We were obviously delusional. No wonder we were such vagrants.

We walked out of Sephora empty-handed, except for our renewed resolve to never ask a perfume salesperson for help again.

30 thoughts on “Talking to Perfume Salespeople: A Cautionary Tale

  1. LOL oh dear, I feel your pain. I try to avoid making eye contact with perfume SAs. I worked in promotion for a large perfume distributor for many years and nothing made me happier than when I happened to be doing stuff behind the counter and someone came in asking for help. It really is amazing to see how happy someone is to get actual helpful information. Sadly there are way too many Miss Purple Eyeshadows out there. My pet peeve is the constant “Oh that one is discontinued” BS they spew. Listen Miss Purple Eyeshadow, just because it is not longer here at your store, does not mean it is discontinued.

    1. I am sure you were excellent at your job! I know you have daughters, but I’m not sure if you have sons- if you do, you might be familiar with this reference. In Pokemon gameboy games, if you make eye contact with another Pokemon trainer, you are forced to battle them. That’s sometimes how I feel about perfume SAs!

  2. I once had a salesperson in a department store tell me Chanel perfumes were “all natural,” and then hastily amended that to “except for the musk.” In case I was worried that Chanel has hunters out killing defenseless musk deer.

    It’s never worthwhile to talk to the salespeople in Sephora or any mid-level department store. However, they are often knowledgeable and fun to chat with in upper-end stores (in Canada that would be Holt Renfrew, in London Harrods) or perfume-only boutiques.

    1. Yes, the higher-end stores are definitely the place to go for decent chats about perfume. Unfortunately, we don’t have any in Baltimore! Nordstrom is as highbrow as we get. There was a bluemercury my freshman year, but it closed in a few months.

      An issue with Chanel salespeople that I often have is when I ask them if the store carries the Les Exclusifs, they have no idea what those are! i mean, they’re on the Chanel website!

      1. I was going to tell you the only Chanel boutiques carry Les Exclusifs (which I know I read somewhere) but when I went to look for more info, I found they are in some dept stores! If you go to the Chanel store locator on their website, you can click the box for “Les Exclusifs” and it will tell you the nearest one {looks like you are either off to McLean, VA or somewhere in PA and I must head up to Palm Springs!).

      2. Yes, I’ve seen them in some Saks, and apparently some Nordstroms even have them. Clearly none of the ones near me! I visited Palm Springs this year, it seems like perfume shopping heaven.

  3. You know, I have to speak out a bit in defense of perfume salespeople. I worked in Macy’s in fragrance for a time between me finishing grad school and finding my office job. A lot of the misinformation about fragrance is actually given to floor salespeople by their superiors, be they managers or vendors.

    I have to say, I was a pretty badass Macy’s salesperson. And a lot of my customers did not WANT to hear the factually correct information I had to present. So, it works both ways.

    1. Thank you for your perspective! Of course no perfume salesperson would give out misinformation on purpose. Misinformation seems to be the norm in the fragrance industry, as if the appeal of perfume lies in the mystery surrounding it rather than in it smelling good!

  4. I’m come back to add something about men’s fragrances… how about something from Varvatos or one of the less-intimidating men’s Bulgaris for your guy?? I think both of their lines are pretty quality (possible exception: the Bulgari Aquas, blech) but most of the offerings are within reason for a younger straight guy.

    My fiance never wore fragrance until recently, and I’ve gotten him hooked on the lighter JPG Le Male that they put out for summer (which I got for free while working in perfume retail). I really like that one and it’s light enough not to be too intimidating to him, I think.

      1. The thing that worries me is how drastically sweet everything went on him. Do you think that would be even more of an issue with orientals, or would it not matter? Normally I don’t think much of skin chemistry, but this was pretty extreme.

    1. Thank you for these suggestions! We did try the Varvatos, but not any other Bulgaris. I really do like Le Male, congratulations on converting your fiancé into a fragrance-wearer!

  5. Right on! I’m amazed at how they don’t have any clue what they are selling. I always end up knowing more about the fragrances and brands. Since she had no idea what you were talking about, she made it seem like you were wrong and annoying. That is a classic sales-associate moment. I always go straight to the manager. I cannot deal with sales people anymore. It seems like only niche perfume shops actually know their products. I was laughing at the Chanel comment from kjanicki. Chanel No 5 contains synthetic molecules. Who are they kidding?

    1. Yes, I understand that it must be an uncomfortable situation to feel like you are less informed than your customer, but the solution should clearly not be to then make the customer feel bad about it. I mean, “We’ve never carried this fragrance” is a strong statement. How about “we don’t seem to have it in at the moment, instead of implying that I’ve hallucinated up a fragrance just for the hell of it?

  6. Hilarious reconfirmation of your pint size vagrant persona, which was not sufficiently offset by your hunky Iowan other half. I went to Iowa for the first time this year as it happens, and found it surprisingly hilly in parts.

    What about La Martina, the designer brand associated with the polo shirt brand of that name? It was the mainstream favourite of a male SA I met in Dresden who worked in a regular department store but was a niche lover at heart. He deemed it the best men’s scent his store carried, and I think it is more of a US than a European brand? (Well Argentina is technically closer to Baltimore at least.)

    1. I’ve never heard of La Martina before! They seem to only have stores in Florida and Nevada. What a shame. I went to Iowa for the first time this year too! It was very pretty, but everything was so spread out. In the DC area you can pretty much walk or metro anywhere you need to, so it was a very different experience for me.

    1. Elisa, I will definitely try to find it, thank you for the suggestion! Now that I am no longer restrained to Sephora (the discount has expired), I can try pretty much anywhere.

  7. I have to totally agree with you when it comes to SA’s. When you need help there is no one around to help you, and if you want to be left alone to browse–they won’t leave you alone. Little did they know that they lost a lot of sales because they were toooooo persistent and pushy. In Dallas Neimans, Nordstroms and Barneys are the worst. It’s sad that you feel like you have to carry an elephant gun for protection. Does Baltimore possibly have a perfume shop that makes custom blends. That is how I started my journey into Perfumeland. Not all of the shops were super expensive. They let you try different notes and you pick as many as you want for that particular bottle.

    1. Oh, no, nothing like that in Baltimore. That is an interesting path into Perfumeland! What do you think of your custom blends now that you have moved into “real” perfumes as well?

  8. I’ve been recommending this one all over the place lately, but you might try L’Occitane’s Eau de Baux. Sniffed it recently and wish I could get my man to wear some but he is totally fragrance-free : ( .

      1. He gets migraines, and sometimes they are triggered by scents. When we first started dating, he didn’t mind my perfume (although it was before I was really “into” perfume, so it wasn’t anything crazy!) and he even wore some stuff I got for him. He’s become more and more sensitive lately, and got a migraine one time when he was wearing cologne, so he stopped wearing it and now I don’t wear scent at home. It’s a big bummer, but I see how he suffers when he gets migraines so I don’t want to contribute to that. I still wear perfume to work, but it sucks on the weekends when I want to be fragrant!

      2. That’s so awful, I’m so sorry to hear that. My mother has atypical migraines, where she sees lights but thank God does not actually have any pain. I hope that your boyfriend begins to recover soon and that you will be able to be fragrant on weekends again!

  9. Have you limited topics we can tease you about by your height and shopping experiences? I find it extremely amusing that your kitty has a dual last name.

    If I had to choose a mainstream masculine perfume I’d go for Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver or one of Hermes perfumes… Wait! Is there Neiman Marcus in Baltimore? If yes, your BF might like one of Atelier Cologne’s creations.

    1. I am willing to add my kitten’s name to the list of things about which I can be teased! I actually wanted to call her “Zelda Wein/Rosenberg”, but Facebook apparently does not allow slashes.
      I think we tried the Tom Ford Grey Vetiver, but it was towards the end and I suspect our noses were too tired to really detect its subtleties.

  10. I am willing to add my kitten’s name to the list of things about which I can be teased! I actually wanted to call her “Zelda Wein/Rosenberg”, but Facebook apparently does not allow slashes.
    I think we tried the Tom Ford Grey Vetiver, but it was towards the end and I suspect our noses were too tired to really detect its subtleties.

  11. Did you try Terre d’Hermes (one of my favorites) I don’t think that one would turn sweet? Or Guerlain Vetivier but maybe that one is too austere?

      1. I’m not the best at describing perfumes, the opening is grapefruity- citrus and the middle notes is supposed to be geranium and pepper among others, the base mineral-woody. This sounds like it should be a cold scent but I find it warm and soothing, with maybe a tiny, tiny bit of skank.
        The description from the company apparently iis “a man with his feet on the ground and his head in the stars”, a much prettier desription than usual “dynamic, sexy, fresh”-stuff.

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