Saturday, February 25, 2012

PERFUME IS NOT MILK: Is the price of perfume too high? A Socratic Reply

Ceci n'est pas un parfum

I have seen a number of complaints by perfumistas in various forums about the price of perfume. The question whether perfume costs too much was opened up as a general topic of discussion by the recent case in which a French court fined a number of perfume houses for having engaged in price-fixing practices, which was said to result in artificially elevated prices for consumers. On its face, this judgment may seem to make sense in the capitalist worldview which now holds sway. There is supposed to be free and open competition, right?

As a matter of fact, the question is considerably more complicated in the case of perfume than in cases involving generic products such as milk. Why? Because a perfume house has an intrinsic monopoly on the perfumes it creates, with a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of those creations. This makes e-bay hawking, gray-market decanting, and the various and sundry practices of other unlicensed retailers potentially dangerous to perfume houses themselves in a way that competition between various dairies is not. You have no doubt seen this phrase written on many a perfume box:

Cet article ne peut être vendu que par les dépositaires agréés
[nom de la maison]

Not found on bottles and cartons of milk... Milk has its own special labels and designations and requirements, but not because Bessy the cow is supposed to be producing a completely different liquid from Betty the cow. No, milk is milk, though of course there are different percentages of fat in different grades of milk. Those grades depend not upon the precise identity of the cow from which the milk came, nor the dairy where she happens to live, but only upon how the milk is processed. 

Perfume, in contrast, means nothing detached from the name. Everything turns on the provenance of perfume: Is this really Chanel no. 5? means Was this produced by Chanel?

Identified Online as "Vintage Fake Chanel no. 5"!

In asserting that perfume is not like milk, and represents an exceptional marketplace case, I do not mean to suggest that I side categorically with the perfume houses on every issue. I have railed Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery before (and no doubt I will again!), and targets of my critique can be found in every camp, including the houses, for example, when they produce cheap imitations of classic perfumes and fob them off under the same name, claiming that all of this came about out of a necessity to comply with IFRA restrictions through reformulation. In reality, it seems quite clear that many reformulations have been undertaken for crassly economic reasons, and this was going on long before the IFRA arrived on the scene to stick its officious nose into perfumers' ateliers.

My various critiques overlap and intersect in sometimes unexpected ways, and it may not always be clear whose side I'm on, so perhaps I should clarify my position once and for all: I am on the side of good perfume. If houses produce good perfume, then I'm on their side. If they focus exclusively on business at the expense of art, then they may become the object of my critique. If they produce bad perfume, then the price becomes irrelevant, because I won't buy it. In any case, whether they produce bad perfume or good perfume, it is my considered opinion that the price of the perfumes which they produce is the prerogative of houses themselves to decide, given that they are the unique source of their own products.

Notwithstanding the considerable interest of the peculiar features of the quasi-monopolistic perfume house marketplace, which will be the theme of another salon post where I consider more closely the French court case, I would like to focus on a different sort of question today. Let me begin by bluntly asserting that I find complaints about the price of perfume quite puzzling, especially when decried with such stridency that the speaker appears to presume that there is some sort of natural right to perfume. Take a close look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you will see that the right to perfume is conspicuously absent from the document. And well it should be, it seems to me.

Yes, although it will make me even more unpopular than I already am, I come here today with a contrarian perspective on the perfume-price question. Stated starkly: I completely disagree that perfume costs too much, and I strongly suspect that those who complain about the price of perfume have simply not thought through how it compares with other products and services for which they regularly pay quite a bit more.

Prices are fair or “outrageous” only in relative terms. It is utterly irrelevant that my great-grandparents used to be able to mail letters for a penny or buy a hamburger for a dime or a gallon of gas for a quarter. In considering the perfume-price question, my own perspective can be understood, at the first and most obvious level, by simply “doing the math,” so to speak. But the relevant comparison is not between what perfume costs today and what it cost fifty years ago.

No, to assess the “fairness” of the price of perfume today, one needs only to compare the cost of a “perfume experience” to the cost of nearly any other form of diversion or product consumed, and you will discover that, in fact, perfume is one of the best bargains around—even at high-end niche prices, and even at full MSRP. If you care about perfume, then, it seems to me, you should be willing to pay for it. If you cannot afford everything (as most of us cannot), then you must make choices and determine where your priorities lie in deciding how to dispense with your modest “entertainment” wallet share.

That's a fairly simple take on the price of perfume which involves comparing it to the price of a concert or a ball game or a case of wine or a night out on the town, all of which can easily cost more than a large bottle of perfume, which may last an entire year—or even longer! All of this seems so obvious to me and so utterly undeniable that I find it truly perplexing that so many people should have issues with the price of perfume.

No one forces anyone to go to concerts or to dine in fine restaurants, and no one needs perfume to survive. These are choices we make, and if we value perfume more than an afternoon at a sporting event or a night out on the town, then we should be willing to pay for the privilege of being able to wear it, should we not?

Now, some may deny that perfume is like a night out on the town or attendance at a sporting event, for it is a product which we possess, although it is true that it is consumed and therefore will eventually be used up, just as a pair of shoes must eventually be thrown away. Let us, therefore, concede for the sake of argument this point—setting to one side the “events in a bottle” which are the perfumes of the house of Serge Lutens—and compare the cost of the luxury item which perfume is (whether event or thing and, in some cases, both...) to the cost of virtually any other luxury item.

Compare, for example, the cost of a bottle of Hermès Hermessence eau de toilette to the cost of the same bottle housed in a dyed pebble-leather sheath. As of today, a 100ml bottle of the perfume purchased from the house's website costs 175 euros (= $235). When housed in a dyed pebbled leather sheath, it costs 415 euros (= $558). This means that the cost of the sheath is 240 euros (= $323). That is the price of the added aesthetic value presumably imparted by the covering. In other words, the perfume itself, what is contained within the bottle, is cheap, relatively speaking, compared to, well, anything else in the Hermès luxury line!

Some will no doubt protest: no tiny piece of cured and tanned cow hide should cost so much! But it does, and if you wish to be able to fondle it in your clammy little hands, then that is the price which you must be willing to pay. Can you live without it? Of course you can. Just as you can live without perfume. Perfume is not milk—or flour or rice or any other staple of life—and if you want it, you should be prepared to pay the price asked by those who create it for you. C'est simple, comme 'Bonjour'.

Having removed the cap from this bottle of Hermès Amazone, HRH Emperor Oliver
affirms the fondle-worthy, paw-palpable beauty of the pebbled leather case.

Now I am not one to tell people who or what they ought to be, nor what they ought to do or own. I do hereby aver that Aristotle was right to assert that, in effect, “You are what you eat [do],” but whatever that is or will be, it is up to each person to decide for him- or herself. Although I have expressed it in a facetious little phrase, Aristotle's theory is compelling, albeit rather simple: if you want to be a virtuous person, then you should act virtuously. So, for example, you may not initially be courageous, but if in the face of danger you force yourself to act as a courageous person would, then eventually you will be a courageous person, habituated as you are to acting courageously.

Aristotle's theory works in the opposite direction, as well, to explain how initially innocent people may end up vicious, petty, and mean. I leave the construction of such an example as an exercise for the reader. Just choose any cad you know, imagine what he was like when he was born, and what he must have done to become who he is today.

To return to the ostensible topic at hand, all that I am really saying, to invoke the wisdom of another sage from ancient Greece, is: Know thyself. Yes, my fragrant friends, by examining your priorities as reflected in your very own spending habits, you can learn a great deal about yourself, above all, what really matters to you and, therefore, who you are. There are infinitely many examples which we might consider in order to illustrate the basic point, but I offer here a specific example from my personal experience. (What else could I do?)

If you are a city dweller who possesses an automobile, though public transportation is easily accessible and taxis stand ready to serve at your beck and call, then you have decided that your car is more important to you than are all of the things which you could do or buy using the money you would retain, were you to renounce your car.

I have often marveled at the number of privately owned cars in cities such as Paris, New York, London, Buenos Aires, Berlin, and Boston, where I currently reside. I honestly wonder whether people really enjoy driving in such congested urban settings, which are a far cry from the land-locked states of middle America, where one can drive for hundreds of miles in serenity and solitude without encountering a single soul—whether afflicted with road rage or not.

It seems abundantly clear to me that cars in a big city are an encumbrance, no more and no less. Why? Above all, because your mind must constantly be in scheming mode, ever vigilant, in order simply to protect the mass of metal which is your vehicle. Are you parked on the right side of the street? Did you put enough money in the meter?? Will your beloved automobile be tagged and towed??? If you go out of town, will you return to find it booted, gutted—or simply gone????

Does it make a lot of sense (or any!) to drive to a destination where there is no parking available—whether free or not!—hence necessitating that you leave your car two miles away and walk that entire distance, despite the fact that you supposedly number among the urbanly mobile? Should rational people be driving cars to their health clubs, where they then proceed to spend an hour walking briskly on a treadmill?

The answers to these and many other questions have persuaded me to believe that in fact having a car in a city, far from being a luxury, is a hindrance to happiness and an impediment to peace of the highest order, verging even on irrationality. Now, I realize that there are special circumstances (children would be one), which may make it somewhat less irrational for some city dwellers to persist in their ownership of a car. But sticking with the example at hand, the case of sherapop: If someone gave me a brand new car, I would give it away. Or, perhaps, more likely, I would trade it in for perfume...

The money which I do not spend on procuring, maintaining, and protecting a car which I do not even need, and the mental space freed up by having one less stupid thing to worry about, together lead to the irresistible conclusion that, for me, life without a car is a form of freedom, not a deficiency. No, I am not car-less, I am car-free.

In saying this I am not claiming to be morally superior or anything of the sort. Yes, it is indeed true that it has become fashionable of late to reduce one's carbon footprint, as they say. In my case, it is a mere coincidence that doing what makes me happy happens also fortuitously to benefit the environment and diminish the need for rapacious wars abroad.

You may of course vehemently disagree with my stance on urban car ownership. You may love the feeling of power and freedom which you derive from knowing that you can get up at 3am and drive alone to another state—or country! You may not therefore believe that having a car in a city is ridiculous, even if it is true that you spend more money on your car than on all of your other pleasures rolled together, including perfume. To city-dwelling car owners who persist in complaining about the price of perfume, I can only reply: what is the price of your auto insurance premium?

Tell me what you spend your money (and time...) on, and I will tell you what you value. The same argument applies, mutatis mutandis, to virtually any other possession which is not necessary to your existence. There are necessities, and there are necessities, of course, and they will obviously vary from case to case, just as a car becomes a necessity to someone living in a rural part of a land-locked state. But each and every one of us chooses to own some things but not others, and the things which are of high enough priority to us, we find a way to acquire, while the others we forgo. In conclusion, to reiterate:

Know thyself.


  1. Dear Sherapop,

    You present a fine argument, which appeals all the more to me as a fellow car-free urban dweller...Well, my town is semi-urban with a decent mass transit system, some bike paths...And even better than large urban dwelling I can walk from one end of town to the other if I allow myself 60-90 min!
    I completely agree that perfume is a luxury, and have no problem saving up for a few fine bottles--my most expensive bottles and decants are promises of sensual indulgence, tools of escape, little interactive objets d'art which I can depend on to reflect upon my moods and desires. I will and have paid more than I ever wanted to for the obsession, but absolutely cannot claim that the purchases were acts of helplessness! I am also on the side of good perfume, and will always stay there! I would like to know more details about the French court case. For now I can say (completely subjectively) that I do believe the monopolizing/price fixing should be penalized, most of all because of the practice of reformulating and discontinuing great perfumes, essentially robbing the consumers. If I were to buy a bottle of Allure now without having tried it since my first encounter some years ago I would have to think the purchased bottle had turned--as long as I could get my money back I would "understand". Due to a great number of "rules of perfumery" which are screamingly absent from the economy of it I would argue that the trouble lies in consumers who aren't demanding enough. If we vote with our dollar bill, why are we willing to give in and buy what we find to be overpriced?

    I don't often, with my Champagne tastes and PBR budget--I buy used most often, taking advantage of others buyer remorse and overindulgence ; )

    1. In the States, price-fixing is illegal, and monopolies are regulated. Price fixing can land *individuals* in federal prison, and monopolies are handled by the US DoJ. Moreover, these activities are considered unethical by most professional associations, such as the American Marketing Association. Patents are granted to allow discoveries a time to recoup costs and earn profits, but patents are not indefinite.

      The french operate under different rules and codes on all these matters.

      ~ awesomeness

    2. Good morning, Kastehelmi, and thank you so much for your comments!

      I think that the issue of reformulation and the issue of price fixing are distinct. If a house does not reformulate and fob off what are essentially fakes—in what strikes me as a flagrant act of false advertising!—then we may harm them by imposing penalties on them for disallowing certain types of retailers to cut the price on their products too much. To do so might even cause them to reformulate as a means of cutting their losses, in fact!

      The houses which already engage in unscrupulous reformulation practices—that is, as a means of maximizing their profits at the expense of the quality of the products which the consumer expects (erroneously) to acquire when he/she buys a second (or third) bottle with the very same name—should simply be shunned. I don't think that penalizing them for price fixing is going to help the situation. Nor is it going to hurt, since the situation is already beyond remedy!!!

      It seems clear that some houses set very high MSRPs which are drastically slashed by the discounters, with the effect that it becomes stupid to buy those perfumes at MSRP, since they are widely available for a fraction of that price. The perfumes of Lalique would be one example. Other houses, and Estée Lauder is perhaps the best example, set the MSRPs of their perfumes rather low.

      You may have noticed that you won't save much money by purchasing an EL perfume from a discounter--you may as well go straight to the house's website, since the price is almost the same. I was in fact very surprised to find that EL was involved in the price-fixing case, because they seem to have as a strategy to set their prices very low to begin with, and thereby capture the market niche of middle class suburban housewives, et al., who are not necessarily luxury consumers in general.

      LVMH was among the "culprits" as well, and it seems that they are running different strategies simultaneously. Guerlain perfumes can now be found for slashed prices (relative to MSRP) at discounters, while Dior perfumes, in general, cannot. I need to look more closely at the case, but I do stand by my claim that the issues of punishment for reformulation and punishment for price fixing should be independent of one another. The only punishment which makes any sense to me is that which is doled out by consumers themselves: refusal to buy products which do not deserve to be bought. Again, the question of good versus bad perfume.

      Thank you again for your comments and for reminding me that if I decide to buy another bottle of Allure, it will be an unpleasant surprise! I've already given up on Guerlain (which was my top house before Y2K), but now it sounds as though Chanel is starting down the same fated path... /-;

    3. Hmmm... on further reflection, maybe it makes more sense that EL would engage in price-fixing practices than it does for houses with high MSRP perfumes, because if their (already low) prices were allowed to dip too much they would not profit at all. What do you think?

      Perhaps a better strategy for a house such as EL would be to offer its perfumes exclusively at its website and counters? Or would that be illegal?

  2. The discussions about the cost of perfume, just as the discussions about the cost of pharmaceutical products, usually revolve around the direct cost of raw materials.

    Well, here's a news flash:

    The cost of raw materials is a fraction of the cost of production (e.g., overhead is an indirect, not direct, cost; overhead includes labor costs). The cost of production is a fraction of the cost of taking a product to market (e.g., selling & advertising expenses, transportation costs, inventory & storage, etc.). Moreover, there are development costs for a commercialized product, and not all development projects are commercialized - these are costed into the product. And there are risks, which are also costed as a price premium to the risk-taker (in econ, we call that an incentive).

    I always get a little nervous by discussions such as these ignore business fundamentals. I want to jump up on a mountain and yell, "You aren't just buying juice, stupid!"

    It's also clear to me that people are not agnostic about their choice of products when they take issue with prices. For instance, the cost of corn in a box Corn Flakes is less than 5-cents. Why is no one getting tied up in a knot about Kellog's cost structure.

    People who feel the cost of Corn Flakes is just too darn high should try to make their own for 5 cents. Fume-heads could try the same ... only then maybe they would realize the basic economic fundamentals at play. There is no way that economically one can make their own perfume of the same quality at that price. Just as there is no possible way to may Corn Flakes at home for 5 cents per batch.

    I bet a lot more people eat Corn Flakes than wear French perfume.

    Oh, the outrage.

    ~ awesomeness

    1. * edit - all my typos and grammatical errors. LOL. :)

      ~ awesomeness

    2. Hello awesomeness and thank you very much for your contributions to this discussion!

      You are right: some people do seem to think that the cost of a product should be equivalent to the arithmetic sum of the cost of its ingredients/components. One interesting recent case in perfume is that of christening of aromachemicals such as ambroxan or iso-E-super as perfumes, pouring them into bottles and selling them at niche prices!

      I must confess that that is a case where I, too, am inclined to balk. Not because I think that a perfume's price should be equivalent to the arithmetic sum of its components, but because such “perfumes” are not really perfumes at all.

      A perfume, in my book, is composed. Pouring a liquid into a bottle is not an act of perfume-making, it seems to me. So, no, I will not be purchasing bottles of such solvents, as I would rather use my perfume wallet share to buy (composed) perfumes! I know that some people love the scent of those aromachemicals, and they love the idea, and for them it may make sense. Perhaps I'm just not quite enamored of ambroxan and iso-E-super, and if I were I would buy them too!

      You also brought up two excellent examples which are interesting to reflect upon and compare to the case of perfume: cornflakes and pharmaceuticals. Let's take cornflakes first. Or better yet, how about Grape Nuts, since I recently finished off a big box of “Everyday Essential Crunchy Nuggets” or something along those lines.

      My box of store-brand “Grape Nuts” cost quite a bit less than a box of Post Grape Nuts, yet, to me, the flavor and crunch and quality were empirically indistinguishable from the name brand cereal. I suspect that in a blind trial, I would not be able to tell the two apart.

      In some cases, store brand equivalents may not be of the same quality, and some people but not others will detect differences between the two. But no one can (reasonably) deny that the massive marketing campaigns of companies such as Kelloggs or Post or Charmin or Listerine, etc., play a huge role in convincing consumers to pay more for products which, if not identical, are pretty close to identical to the store brand generic equivalents.

      The case of pharmaceuticals is even more interesting, because only relatively simple, fully identified chemicals are involved, so there is no question of the quality of barley being used, for example. A generic drug equivalent contains EXACTLY the same chemical components as the name brand. Nonetheless, I think that the case of pharmaceuticals is closer to cornflakes and milk than to perfume, as counterintuitive as that may initially sound.

    3. Reply to awesomeness cont'd.

      One might suppose that perfume is closer to drugs, but I think that it is not, for a couple of reasons. One is that I do not believe—and please correct me, if I am wrong—that perfumers are required to disclose to consumers (or anyone else) the precise ingredients involved in the key ingredient listed on the packaging: “parfum” or “perfume” or “fragrance” or “profumo”. It's like a little black box, a secret formula known only to the perfumer and the house.

      In contrast, drugs are very closely regulated by the FDA and other agencies in other countries, which of course makes a lot of sense, since people ingest drugs. The tiny amounts of “stuff” included in the “parfum” ingredient of a perfume are perhaps considered too low of a percentage to require an accounting of, but I'm just speculating here...

      In any case, the effect of the secrecy permitted to perfumers is to make it very nearly impossible for someone to produce an identical perfume (except in weird cases such as one-note aromachemical “perfumes”). True, a chemist can perform a gas chromatographic analysis of a sample of perfume and nail down the major chemical components, but the number of different molecules present in any natural substance is mindbogglingly large, so what knock-off perfumer houses end up making are, well, knock-offs. They do not generally smell as good as the original. They are more like gestures in the direction or wafts of the original perfume.

      So I do think that drugs and cornflakes are less complicated and esoteric, if you will, than perfumes. Of course, the secrecy of perfume-making also protects unscrupulous houses when they undertake reformulation, whether acknowledged or not...

    4. Whether or not you get what you pay for when you buy perfume really depends on what and why you are buying. For perfumistas like us, what really matters is the smell, but for others it may be prestige, the fact that they like the celebrity whose name is on the bottle or maybe because they know a perfume will be a "safe" choice for themselves or as a gift. The key is to know your own motivations. It is also important to have an understanding of what goes into the price of a perfume.

      In the case of most mainstream/designer scents, you are paying much more for advertising, celebrity spokespeople, packaging, product distribution and placement than for raw materials. You are also paying for the brand name itself, ie., Dior, Chanel, Hermes or Estee Lauder. For consumers, a brand name is a little like a guarantee of a certain level of quality, prestige and exclusivity. This is different for different brands and can also change over time as a brand's reputation rises or falls.

      On the niche side, I think, in general, ingredient costs are more of a factor in pricing. It's a fact that many high quality natural perfume ingredients are very costly. Having purchased essential oils and absolutes of such things as rose, tuberose, orange blossom and sandalwood, I can attest to that. Other natural ingredients, citruses come to mind, are much less expensive (which is why I would have a hard time paying expensive niche prices for a predominantly citrus scent).

      The prices perfume houses charge don't just come out of thin air. You can pay for prestige, a celebrity endorsement or you can pay for quality (and I believe there is quality at many different price points). Of course, I realize I'm talking here about capitalism in a perfect world, one in which there is full disclosure as to what exactly you are purchasing when you buy a perfume. With these backdoor formulation changes by perfume houses, I also realize we do not live in this perfect world. Maybe then real issue then is not so much pricing, but disclosure.

    5. Nice to read you here again, Njeb! As usual, you have brought some completely new—and heretofore neglected—angles into the discussion!

      Yes, you are absolutely right: many people are not looking for the perfume equivalent of a generic product. No, they actually want all of the marketing associations that go along with the name of a perfume—whether that be the house's venerable history or the celebrity whose face and body currently grace the perfume's ads. Or even, in the case of celebrity fragrances themselves, the associations that the consumer makes with that particular person. Britney Spears is an excellent example. It's quite clear from a glance at the reviews of her house's perfumes that some people are buying them up because they love Britney—they could care less what the perfumes smell like and appear to be ready and willing to acquire a taste for whatever perfumes are launched under her name.

      But you are also right that we often come to expect a certain quality of product from a particular house and that's why the recent rash of reformulations is so disconcerting to some of us. This will come as no surprise, given the amount of ranting I've done in the past about the reformulation of Mitsouko ((-:), but I was a big-time Guerlain devotee until fairly recently. I would buy on faith anything launched by that house! After three or four very bad blind buys, I've learned my lesson. They have fallen from grace in my eyes.

      Still, lots of people remain loyal to a particular house through thick and thin, and they may derive value just from their identification with the house and its name—regardless of what the house may be currently putting out. Kastehelmi did a great job of expressing what are the concerns of many a perfumista regarding the house of Dior. What is really going on? The last straw would seem to be the renaming of Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior! Who in the world is managing that house? What exactly is their master strategy supposed to be?

      In any case, the point is, that people become disenchanted with such changes—even radical transmogrifications—at different rates. And some people may never notice—or care—at all. I think that houses such as Coty, which run multiple strategies simultaneously, producing both decent quality perfumes (in the prestige line) and what to some of us is unwearable dreck in their drugstore (non-prestige) line, are very aware that not all consumers are sophisticated perfumistas.

      Most producers of celebrity perfumes, too, are well aware that the vast majority of the bottles will be purchased not by perfume lovers but by lovers of that particular celebrity. Then the question for such houses becomes: “Do we also want to launch a perfume which has appeal as a perfume?” In some cases, for example Sarah Jessica Parker's first two perfumes, the answer appears to be "yes." But the same house may later launch a bunch of other stuff that will be bought primarily for the name, not the product.

      From your comment about the cost of niche perfumes having to do with the cost of the components, I gather that you are something of a true niche believer. At the same time, you point out correctly that high-quality perfumes can be found at low prices. Yes, you have to work a bit harder to find them, maybe sniff through a bunch of stuff that you dislike, but there are indeed gems to be had. The question, then, becomes: if such good perfume can be had for such a low price, then what are we really paying for when we buy a triple-digit dollar bottle of perfume?

      In the case of houses such as Chanel, it's quite obvious that the vast, continuous, inundative marketing campaigns have something to do with the price. But they also have tended to produce some pretty darn good perfume. In the case of some high-end niche houses, there is very little advertising, and the perfume is mediocre. Go figure.

    6. reply to Njeb, cont'd.

      Your final point about disclosure is an especially intriguing one to me, because I'm not so sure that it is either feasible or desirable in the case of perfume. It's not feasible, it seems to me, because all of the important information about a perfume is found in the “parfum” ingredient, which is not going to change with reformulation. This is how houses can get away with reformulation: there is no way of knowing what was in the perfume in the first place—at least not the precise components of the key ingredient—so when it changes, they are the only ones who know. We consumers find out after the fact when we lament that “This is not Mitsouko!” or whatever perfume we thought we were buying a second or third... bottle of.

      From a business perspective, disclosing that the perfume has been reformulated would seem to be a bad idea for famous and beloved perfumes because the name of the perfume carries such weight because all of the people who love it for its formula. So it seems that for a house to announce out of the blue that “Chanel no 5 has been reformulated” is not going to happen. Why would they undermine their own sales strategy which in the case of a famous perfume is firmly grounded in the loyalty of repeat consumers?

      At the same time, if perfume houses were required to reveal the secret ingredients in the “parfum” itself listed among the ingredients (solvents, etc.) on the box, which would change when the perfume was reformulated, then I think that much of the allure and appeal of the art of perfumery would be lost. What's more, the perfume world would swiftly turn into Knock-off City, it seems to me.

      Perhaps we are better off in a world where perfumers create sometimes magical elixirs for us and the accountants and business managers of the houses—perhaps after mergers or changes in leadership—mangle them later on down the line. We still have the possibility of discovering new and wonderful perfumes, even in a world where business interests largely hold sway and tend to get the last word.

  3. "Of course, I realize I'm talking here about capitalism in a perfect world, one in which there is full disclosure as to what exactly you are purchasing when you buy a perfume. With these backdoor formulation changes by perfume houses, I also realize we do not live in this perfect world. Maybe then real issue then is not so much pricing, but disclosure."

    Sherapop, I just don't think price fixing and reformulation are independent of each other, and while you argue that they should be penalized differently/treated independently how is it not criminal to fix your product at a high price while simultaneously secretly replacing said product with a *cheap*, shameful, questionable jus that one wouldn't spritz on one's worst enemy?

    Perhaps I just can't currently imagine how we could ban reformulation!asking for perfume houses/designer labels to be transparent in this way seems even more difficult and unlikely to yield than asking for government transparency. Assuming (as we have) that perfume is often purchased for the label alone and often purchased by anosmic consumers, fixing a high price while being allowed to reformulate seems like a perfect situation to take advantage of discriminating consumers as well as the "casual luxury buyer". I have never for a moment thought that I could produce a bottle or Diorella or Dior Addict for cheaper, but I do beg to know how it is unreasonable to ask for a reasonable price as a consumer for both of these perfumes--the former which has been reformulated 3-5 times at least, becoming less compelling each time, and the latter which is popular, has its own very special character (which is obviously not for everyone)...yet it's been reformulated, and for the fixed over $100 price tag who knows what Dior is trying to pass off as Addict now? Perfume may not be milk, but it can still be very very rotten, and people can still depend and become accustomed to a certain quality for their dollar while being silently robbed. In the case of milk it's hGH, and while it may not be unknown anymore I think fixing a price to be artificially high and offering a product of lower quality without transparency is always criminal--that is my number one bone to pick with perfumery. Just buying what I like works, but it won't always work if I have no way of knowing what I'm buying, and no relevance in the market. I know the price that each company sets is far from arbitrary--but I can't say that all complaining and moaning about prices on the part of perfumistas is thoughtless, feckless complaining-we're all looking out for our own interests.It's not easy for everyone to pay a large amount for a bottle of perfume, and easing into the world of expensive luxury is a reality check for any perfumista who doesn't have it in the bank--so complaining about prices is to be expected, especially in a culture that doesn't always effectively differentiate between want and need. For me it isn't morally wrong, a system of transparent capitalism with artistic intent as queen is fine and dandy, but for now the perfume mass market and the consumers are very much at odds--it's not surprising that neither shows much regard or understanding for the other....

  4. My dear Kastehelmi, your adorable diatribe is music to my ears! Such passion, such engagement, such a sonorous string of verses!

    Before replying to any of your most excellent points (many of which I totally agree with and all of which I thank you for expressing!), I need to point out that you have cited Njeb, not sherapop, at the opening of your comment. I actually disagree with the content of that citation, as you can read in my reply to Njeb. I also think that Njeb made a number of observations which bear directly on your concerns.

    Let me here take up your challenge to my claim that the price fixing and reformulation issues are distinct. You are right, of course, to decry the quasi-criminal acts of fobbing of cheap imposters as the original classic perfumes. That houses can continue to charge the same price for perfumes the production costs of which have obviously been diminished through reformulation, is a testimony to the nature of business, not to the nature of perfumery.

    It is easy to forget that perfumers may be artists, but their wares are nearly always owned by business people. Look at all of the "freelance" perfumers we know of who have composed perfumes for countless houses: Sophia Grojsman, JC Ellena, Dominique Ropion, Calice Becker, Maurice Roucel, Christine Nagel, Pierre Bourdon, Beatrice Piguet, Anne Flipo, Jacques Cavalier, the list goes on and on and on. They are the rule, not the exception. Most perfumers do not stick with a single company for their entire career—the exceptions being those who start and remain with their own house.

    What happens to these perfumers' creations after they hit the road, check in hand, is literally out of their hands. We perfumistas love great perfumes, which are created by great perfumers, but the truth is that they become known to us only as commercial objects in the business world. We know nothing of the private or bespoke perfumes of perfumers, because we have no access to them. What we have access to are the perfumes which some company has decided to manufacture and distribute. Without the perfume companies, we would be stuck blending together essential oils in our humble boudoirs.

    At the end of the day, these companies are concerned to make money, and they will do what they need to do to maximize the profits of their shareholders. When new CEOs come on board, radical changes in philosophy and creative outlook often follow. All of this is totally out of our control. We have no say in decisions regarding reformulation because, from the perspective of the companies, they are business decisions. We may lament the tragedies which befall once great perfumes, and we may even believe in our heart of hearts that this is criminal: is it not an act of false advertising to call something what it manifestly is not? But, at the end of the day, we are at the mercy of the companies.

  5. reply to Kastehlemi, cont'd.

    This is not to say, however, that we are helpless, as you so astutely observed in your first comment on this post. No, we are not helpless. We, the consumers, have all of the power in the world, if only we would act in a coherent way so as to punish companies whose products do not deserve to be bought, by refusing to buy them.

    However, as Njeb observed above, we perfumistas are only one part of the market for perfumes. I suspect that we are in the minority. Most people know very little about perfume and buy it for the prestige, etc.., that come with it—again, as Njeb said. So even if all of the savvy perfumistas of the universe were to bind together to stand strong against these reformulation crimes, some of these companies would continue to thrive.

    In fact, in reality, even perfumistas do not agree about which reformulations are beyond the pale and which are not. So basically, all we can do is exercise our own right to consumer choice and invest our own modest perfume wallet share in houses which deserve our patronage.

    My impression is that the passion of your response derives primarily from your sense of righteous anger that we are being played for dupes. But isn't that the nature of marketing? And isn't business, at its core, an amoral endeavor? Sure, there may be gestures these days suggesting social consciousness on the part of companies, but are they not simply more clever means of marketing?

    Consider the DKNY Pure ad campaign bragging about the inclusion of Ugandan vanilla in the perfume, which is supposedly helping the women of Uganda. Please. How many drops of vanilla are there in a bottle of perfume? I ask most sincerely. And yet this gesture of pseudo-altruism is used to market the perfume as though it were any less a part of the profit machine than any other perfume in the house's line up (a member of the Estée Lauder Group, I might add! (-;).

    In my reply to Njeb I explained why I am skeptical about “disclosure”, and I do stand by my original statement that penalizing houses for price fixing might actually cause them to conduct themselves even worse than they already do! Is it right that Dior continues to charge the original MSRP for perfumes which are but shadows of their former selves? What is the force of that question? That is what they do. The proper response, in my view, is simply not to buy them.

  6. I admit that the possibility that perfume houses will be fully transparent about formulation changes is pretty remote for the reasons you stated. I also realize that the vast majority of consumers do not care about perfume the way we do. I do think though that perfume houses can only push their hush-hush reformulations and deceptive naming (a la Miss Dior) so far before there is a consumer backlash. A lot of people have a "signature scent" and could very well notice if does not smell the same as it used to. This, along with with things like mediocre flankers, could well erode a brand's reputation over time.

    Many people do pay for prestige and reputation. If you reach a tipping point where there is a general perception that a brand's quality has diminished, consumers will be lass likely to pay a premium price for that brand's products. I think brands like Dior need to me very careful with the sort of offerings they plaster their name on. Remember, brands such as Coty and Faberge were not always viewed as lower quality discount brands.

  7. Good examples, Njdeb (and so sorry that I have consistently misspelled your name--which I only just noticed!!!!).

    Coty is especially telling, given that "they" (the original company) were actually the originator of the very concept of CHYPRE, one of the most sophisticated of perfume categories! Oh the irony...

  8. Sorry about the mix up earlier, njdeb-- love your points--and wish disclosure were a regular part of the world of perfumery!

  9. About 20 years ago I worked at Verreries Pochet et du Courval (the US office of the French manufacturer of high-end bottles for perfume and cosmetics). At the time, Ralph Lauren's Safari was under development. Our salesperson who worked with the Lauren company showed me a prototype of the perfume bottle, which had a lovely cut-glass effect. She told me what the cost was to produce the juice itself, and the retail price it would sell for in stores. Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact numbers now, but I do remember that the difference was vast(something like: product cost less than $10 to produce, but would sell at retail for over $200). I asked her how they justified that price, and she told me that it was due to the costs of packaging, advertising, and marketing.

    So, knowing that most of the cash goes towards building the "aura" that surrounds the fragrance, should I buy an expensive perfume? That begs the question, what is it worth to me? Is it a fragrance I love, that makes me feel wonderful, that brightens my day whenever I wear it? Then, yes, it is worth the money. We all have a couple of frivolities in our lives that we feel are worth spending our money on. They aren't the necessities of life, but they enhance life, and as long as you can still pay your rent and put food on the table, I say go for it.

    That being said, I have limits. When a perfume's price goes north of $150.00, I put the brakes on. I've never even tested lines like Clive Christian, Amouage, or Kilian, because I don't want to fall in love with a fragrance that I can't afford. And really, there are zillions of fragrances out there. Isn't it possible to find something I'll also love and enjoy wearing at a lower price point?

    There are people who will buy something, say a perfume, just because it is expensive and comes from a prestige house. Just hoping a little of the glitter will rub off on them, I guess. Price doesn't make it a good perfume (nor does a prestige house; they've all made their duds). I've read a lot of complimentary comments in the blogs about Coty's Sand & Sable, a drugstore fragrance. Many people wore and loved it, despite its provenance. Currently, you can buy 2 oz. of it on or at FragranceX for about $30. So, further proof that cost has little to do with the juice.

    Life enhancement: Now, that's something worth spending your money on.


All relevant comments are welcome at the salon de parfum—whether in agreement or disagreement with the opinions here expressed.

Effective March 14, 2013, comment moderation has been implemented in order to prevent the receipt by subscribers of unwanted, irrelevant remarks.