Retail Sniffage: an Insider Q&A (and a giveaway!)

Photo courtesy of Osswald NYC.

By necessity a huge amount of my earliest perfume sampling was at department stores. I learned quickly to offer sales associates a friendly-but-firm just browsing, thanks!, which seemed prudent, particularly in places that are commission-driven and they’ll stalk you like hyenas across the Sahara, waiting to see if your credit-card hand will weaken. I’m not complaining; they’re just trying to get paid, and the intensity of my focus is unusual – what could I possibly be doing? So if I’m going to troll their department for an hour or three and leave with nothing but a migraine, I might as well be up front about it. Beyond that, my general goin’-sniffin’ armor consists of dressing nicely and (if it’s a high-end joint like Hermes) working a reasonably fierce, precisely applied lipstick that signals I mean business, even if that business is unclear.

Anyhow, I get regular feedback from perfumistas about awkwardness and reticence when it comes to retail sniffage, even (especially?) if you’re not planning to buy anything that day. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bit more understanding and transparency between customer and seller? I got to thinking about all this while visiting Osswald for the first time, where I met the delightful and knowledgeable Josie, and watched her help a young man choose a scent for himself. She and I got to talking about what perfume sales is like from the other side of the counter. I’m nosy and I love hearing about how particular jobs work, so I invited Josie to do this Q&A, and she’ll answer any questions you have about retail/boutique sniffage, Osswald, or perfumes, if you leave them in comments.

Also, Josie’s prepared to do a giveaway draw, selected from commenters today — a set of five samples of your choice from Osswald! Which …. have you seen their inventory?   (Josie says: US and Canada only, please.)

Josie: Well, let me just begin by saying it’s a huge honor to be featured on the Posse! I am audibly squeaking with excitement as I type.

March: Hey, your enthusiasm about your job is contagious. Okay — who wanders into a place like Osswald? Do you get curious folks popping in, or is it more likely to be perfume fanciers? Do people ever seem confused or overwhelmed?

Josie: Osswald (as you and Patty discovered when you came to visit a couple of weeks back!) is off the proverbial beaten path in Soho, so people don’t typically wander in. It’s really not in a location that people just stroll past. The only time that happens is when someone staying at the hotel across the street pops in because the windows look pretty. I’d say a solid 95% of people come to Osswald because they’re actively curious about something we carry here, whether it be the perfumes or the Swiss skincare.

Upon entering the store, nearly everyone becomes overwhelmed as soon as they realize just how much we’ve packed into this space! But it’s a good sort of overwhelmed, I think, like when you take a child to a candy store – he just want to grab at and eat everything, and people who come to Osswald just want to smell as many fragrances as they can handle. The only people who are confused by the store are the 5% who somehow stumbled in and think we’re just a nicer Sephora.

March: What do you wish people would tell you when they come in? Is there anything that sticks out in terms of what you wish customers would (or wouldn’t) do?

Josie: Oh gosh, yes. In no particular order:

  • If you’re coming to just spend some time sniffing, and have no intention to buy anything, that’s ok, just tell me! Yes, I’m a salesperson, I sell things – but in an environment like Osswald, I’m here to be a guide and an educator too. Sometimes people become defensive or ask me to leave them alone, because they think I’m only here to sell something. But if you let me talk to you at least for a few moments, maybe I might lead you to something new!
  • If you’re intending to purchase, and you have a budget to stick to, tell me. If it’s $200, that’s perfectly fine, I have tons to show you – and giving me your price range allows me to guide you through the appropriate fragrances and not set you up for disappointment. You can always get a couple of samples of the more expensive stuff! It’s so frustrating for me to spend time with a client, show them a few scents, and then have them become upset about prices and walk out without a purchase. I won’t get turned off if you tell me your price range; it’s my job to find what is right for you, in every parameter (size, price, scent, etc.).
  • If you have visited me previously, and I gave you a sample of something (or you purchased a sample of something), and you love said sample and decide you want to buy it, KEEP THE SAMPLE VIAL! Take a photo of it, even. Bring said photo or vial with you. I will love you forever. I will shower you with many more samples. Nothing is more frustrating for you or me than trying to guess what that sample was.
  • Please don’t ask me to show you what I like. Years of doing this job for a living have shown me that my personal taste is way different from the majority of people I’ve encountered; more importantly, from a sales POV, clients can get really turned off to buying if they are shown fragrances they don’t like right from the start. I will almost always deflect the question if asked.

March: Is there a general formula or pattern in terms of a successful perfume purchase? I mean, do people offer you any clues, or are you starting from scratch?

Josie: It’s totally ok to walk on in and say “Josie, I love it all, and I want to smell it all.” I’m going to hand you a pen, some blotters, a glass of water, and salute you. Go forth, and sniff, and I’m here to answer your questions if and when you have any. However, if you’re looking to buy, the key to success is talking. Tell me what you own. Tell me what you want to own. Tell me what you hate. When I hand you a blotter, describe what you’re smelling to the best of your abilities. Otherwise, it’s hard for me and less effective for you in terms of finding that perfect scent. There’s no secret formula – my job is just easiest on me when a client is as descriptive as possible. Just talk! TALK! Don’t be embarrassed by a lack of vocabulary, an imperfect recall of vintages, or an inability to pronounce French. Just smell and talk and smell and talk and enjoy yourself.

March: Can you share a happy story of a customer-fragrance matchup?

Josie: Oh gosh, I have so many! Here’s one from when I first started at Osswald: I had a woman coming in looking for a wedding fragrance. She was totally not the type to have or want a collection – she wanted that one beautiful scent that she could wear often that would remind her and her husband of their love. She loved green scents, light scents, fig. I ended up matching her with Profumum Roma Dambrosia. I received a call from her a few weeks later, thanking me for my help – her husband loved the fragrance. Afterwards, I cried in the bathroom for a few minutes because it just felt so special to me to have been involved in such an intimate moment. Scent memory is the strongest kind of memory, and this woman will have her Dambrosia and those lovely memories will be conjured up for her and her husband every time she sprays it on…ugh, getting teary-eyed just thinking about it again!

I am also always happy when I meet someone who’s a scent twin. Like I said earlier, my personal taste is very specific and it’s hard to find people who enjoy the same sorts of fragrances as me. Whenever I make that connection with a client, it’s magic. Things become so much more fun. I also love whenever I meet a client who’s into vintage fragrances – although finding fragrances for such a client is hard!

March: As someone who loves fragrance and lives in New York, do you have any tips for making sniffage at a department store counter less annoying for our lovely readers, or the SAs standing there? And as someone who’s worked at both, can you touch on how sales are handled differently by department stores and boutiques?

Josie: Most SAs at department stores will only know about the lines that they work for, and likely know way less about perfume than you. They will give you a spiel – they are trained to do so, and can get in trouble for not doing so depending on the line (you might be a secret shopper for all they know!) Just politely listen and re-iterate that you are looking around and will ask questions if necessary. A firm “just looking” can get you some alone time, but eye contact and a friendly delivery is a nice touch. SAs have to stand on their feet all day, deal with an annoying dress code, the fear of secret shopping from both their brand and the actual department store, and a lot of nitpicky rules.

Also, many SAs in department stores work on commission; these SAs are often required to inter-sell throughout the store, but a certain percentage of their total sales must come from the brand they work for. If you have zero intent to buy, make that crystal clear when you approach the counter, and please don’t get offended if you receive less personal attention because of this. Take the opportunity to sniff without being bothered by the aforementioned spiel and sales tactics. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise most of the time.

Finally, please don’t get upset if you ask for samples and the SA refuses. Believe it or not, a lot of lines do not want their SAs to give out samples without purchase. I realize this is counterintuitive to sales building, but it’s how it is. Some SAs will ignore this and give out samples – bless them, but realize that sometimes they can get in trouble for this! Regarding samples from smaller niche boutiques: we don’t have the sort of budget that a huge line owned by Estee or LVMH has for samples – we pay for the supplies, the testers, the labels, etc. At Osswald, we have a sample program where we charge fairly for large samples, but we still try to be generous and give freebies where we can. As in many things, a little bit of kindness and a smile is welcome, and it often gets you more goodies!

March: Next time I visit, I’m moving in for two days – maybe three – and we’re ordering takeout, just so you know. Your merchandise is stellar. I feel like I didn’t even make a proper dent.

Josie: Well, if you ever want to make my day, come to Osswald with a cup of coffee (splash of skim, a couple of Splendas). I will throw myself at your feet!


bperf May 18, 2015

Awesome interview, and I am heading to Osswald next time I am visiting NYC (hopefully soon). Thanks for the insight!

AnnieA May 15, 2015

I love to hear about great perfume experiences. Last week I took a colleague to the Perfum Shoppe and she was so happy with the Montale she ended up with.

Niles Dennard May 14, 2015

It's been quite a while since I've gone sample sniffing in a physical store. Reading this interview makes me want to visit Joey in NYC more than I already did, which was a lot to start with. This was such an enjoyable read. Love.

Mary Beth May 14, 2015

Oh, Josie-Jose. It's been too long since I've been up to the city. I miss you. And I *still* keep thinking about the 777 Khol de Bahrein - Not that the PGs aren't lovely....Didn't remember there was a spa room. Is it BYOB? Hopefully will be up once the Philly tracks are repaired.

Kandice May 14, 2015

What a wonderful interview! Thanks to both of you for taking the time to put this together. I would love to visit if I ever get to NY again. Shops like Osswald just make me bemoan the fact that despite living in a big city there is nothing like that here, just department stores and Sephora's. Hence most of my perfume shopping is done online. But I appreciate getting to visit virtually :-). Thanks again!

Mariann May 14, 2015

Such a great read! And maybe I'll finally scare up the courage to go the mother store here in Zurich. It just looks so intimidating from the outside.

Gigi May 14, 2015

I am on the opposite side of the continent, so chances are not great that I'll make it, though I'd love to visit Osswald in NYC. My most memorable and pleasant shopping experiences have all taken place shopping for perfume. SAs take way too much heat if you asked my experience they are some of the most knowledgable, friendly and generous people I've come across. Love the interview! Nice to hear from 'the other side' :-)

Jasmin May 14, 2015

What a gorgeous store! I've never seen anything like it. Thank you perfume posse and Joey.

Lisa Darty May 14, 2015

You know, I am one of those people who have recurring dreams about places I long to go. These are usually centered around food (my favorite dream is of arriving at a splendid pastry shop). I'm thinking maybe I should expand my range to include Osswald; it looks like a perfumista's fantasy come true!

Eloquaint May 14, 2015

Josie, I'm coming in July. I'm so excited I piddle a little every time I think about it. Uh, I'll work on that before I show up. I still want to be entered in the drawing. I need a head start. Plus it's perfume. I can't say no.

hajusuuri May 14, 2015

Thanks for the insider view! I go through phases where I would like to be left alone while sniffing while at times, I just want someone else to do the spritzing; either way, I am always polite. The one exception to this politeness was an encounter at Krigler -- there were 3 of us and we wanted to sniff through the range. The SA initially refused to let us do it saying we had to make an appointment -- what for? there was NO ONE ELSE around. When she still refused, I straightened my back, asked for her name and her manager's name and phone number. She changed her tune STAT and started whipping out the tester strips and rattled off the name of the perfume and the notes.

tiffanie May 13, 2015

What a treat to get the inside scoop on so many perfume counter questions. Thank you for the thoughtful comments and replies! I like to think of trips to department store perfume counters as an adventure with a bit of "are you thinking what I'm thinking?" :D It helps me keep my sense of fun front and center. Shopping is fun! And I always put on my best shopping manners. I pretend I'm in Paris, Vienna, or Munich and remember to say hello, thank you, and good bye to anyone who is working where I shop. It makes my little world feel more civil, more gracious. Even so, I always find that the most fun I have sniffing happens when I have a dialog with an SA. It's almost always up to me to get the ball rolling and then I have to do my share of the talking. I haven't found any mind readers at Saks yet.

Jennifer Counts May 13, 2015

I really enjoyed your interview! I've never been to NYC, but if I do visit I'll be sure to stop by. Osswald sounds like an amazing store. While we're dreaming about future locations, I think Houston could use one. :)

Lillian Holloway May 13, 2015

Atlanta desperately needs an Osswald. There are so few places to buy any fragrances. And it needs a Josie too. How in the world do you not spent your whole paycheck?

The Scented Hound May 13, 2015

Awesome interview and advice which helps to illustrate the bigger picture at our beloved perfume stores!

odonata9 May 13, 2015

What a great interview! It is great to get perspective from the other side of the counter. Interesting about the samples - I can see how some brands trying to keep a luxury/exclusive vibe, wouldn't want to be associated with anything "free"! But then as you said, samples drive sales so I guess they have to decide what is more important to them! Thanks for the draw. I've never been to Osswald, but it sounds wonderful.

Claudia May 13, 2015

Love the advice about the lipstick and making eye contact. Great article-someday I'll get to New York!

Danielle May 13, 2015

Visiting Osswald would be a dream trip! Hopefully I'll make it to the faraway east coast soon!

Claudia D. May 13, 2015

Looks like Osswald is a must-visit next time I visit NYC! Great interview. :-)

Gina May 13, 2015

What a lovely interview! I've never been to Osswalds but someday I will????.

aonusko May 13, 2015

Thank you both for such a fascinating interview. I identify with everything said! And thank you, Kathryn, for the nice Indigo Perfumery compliment. Each customer is so very different, whether it be someone with the deer in the headlights reaction or a confiident perfumista. We are here to assist... Osswald's beautiful store is always inspiring.

Nemo May 13, 2015

I have never had a chance to go to Osswalds (yet!), but I loved reading this interview. Thank you for all the helpful tips! I haven't done very much retail sniffing (there is close to none where I live in the middle of nowhere). However, I did make it to a Barney's last time I was in a big city on the West Coast, and I had a somewhat negative experience that made me pause. I was talking to a salesperson for Le Labo, and he was initially very helpful and friendly. However, when I mentioned that I often buy decants because I can't afford (or use up!) full bottles, he became almost openly hostile and definitely not very helpful. Is it usually bad to say that I buy decants to a salesperson? I wouldn't do it quite so often if more brands offered smaller bottles!!

sandipants May 13, 2015

what a great interview!!! you gave me great insight, josie! thank you! my personal experience @ osswalds was nothing short of delightful! i went with the intention of visiting josie, but she had the day off. we had the pleasure of working with clement, who hosted us warmly & guided us through the store in the most welcoming, lovely manner!!! he introduced me & my partner to fragrances that we both love (me: l'ombre fauve (which i would've NEVER tried on myown), him: wild oud (FANTASTIC)). my experience is that an SA can make or break my opinion of a store/shop, regardless of the lines they carry (e.g., i will go out of my way to go to a little hole in the wall with great staff & will blow off the big box department stores).

maya May 13, 2015

Great interview,?an not wait to try this place. Thanks for the draw!

ojaddicte May 13, 2015

Josie, When I get the opportunity to visit NY again, I will be making my way off the beaten path to Osswald. I will be more than happy to bring you a coffee! I am a vintage perfume lover, but I have been able to find modern creations to embrace. Given your inventory, I'm sure I'd be able to find something to bring home! Thank you for the draw. ????

Lila May 13, 2015

I was fortunate to be able to visit Osswald last summer - gorgeous store and excellent service. I just wish I had more time to spend there. I live a couple of hours away from Chicago which has a lot to offer in the way of perfume but they have nothing like an Osswald. Any chance of opening up a midwestern Osswald? I prefer to try one perfume at a time and it might take quite a few wearings for me to figure out how I feel about a fragrance. That combined with how far I have to drive to access certain frags makes this an exhausting hobby (and expensive when I have to order samples). It would be so nice to just have one destination to meet all of my perfume needs.

Tiara May 13, 2015

I'm curious how you handle people wanting to buy perfume for someone else. While it turned out OK, the husband of a woman I know went perfume shopping and took his niece along. They ended up with Flowerbomb (which luckily turned out to be a big hit with the wife) but I kept thinking as I heard the story, "Disaster in the making". I have a hard enough time figuring out what I want. What do you tell a 3rd party?

Vicki May 13, 2015

What a great interview, thanks Josie! And thanks March!

mikasminion May 13, 2015

I'm so glad there are still places to shop for perfume that are staffed by people who actually love perfume. I mostly order samples and shop online these days because as far as I know Texas is not a great place for perfume shopping. All of the independent cosmetics/perfume boutiques I knew were shut down when Sephora moved in. There are a few high-end clothing shoppes that carry interesting lines but they always make me feel that the perfume is an afterthought and I'm a complete loser for not buying a six hundred dollar shapeless cotton shift instead. I hope that one day I might get to one of the real perfume stores for a good sniffing spree and now I will know how to prepare.

Janice May 13, 2015

Thank you for this interview--so many good insights! I will definitely plan on visiting Osswald when I'm in NY.

Ellen May 13, 2015

I've never been to Osswald's and from your description, I certainly wish I could. Thank you for your thoughtful and insighful comments. I was a SA in a department store(briefly) and it is as you describe. Trying to educate one's fellow SAs is not in the playbook. Stick to the script and sell. Josie, you sound like the perfect person to work with both as a customer and as a colleague. I just wish there was some place like Osswald's closer to where I live...or maybe not as I would definitely be a lot poorer.

rincoglionita May 13, 2015

This is the first I've heard of Osswald (I know, I know), but I was completely charmed by Josie. Her tips were so helpful, and her personality is delightful! Thanks for sharing your conversation!

Janet in California May 13, 2015

That was very interesting! I will never understand the larger niche brands not giving away samples. It seems that it should be their basic advertizing strategy.

Andrea NM May 13, 2015

I'm just back from New Orleans, but feel a road trip coming on..... Great interview, thanks to both of you.

Ashley A May 13, 2015

Oh Josie, you are a woman after my own heart. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I am an SA at a small fragrance retailer and you hit the nail on the head with this, and gave me some good tips for when I visit other places as well! Thank-you and Osswald's as well for the generous giveaway offer. I hope I can come there in person someday for a visit, as I imagine it would be heavenly!

jirish May 13, 2015

I would love to visit Osswalds (and NYC), and assume I'd be overwhelmed there. I always have a hard time describing my taste to salespeople, because there is such a wide variety I love, and I have yet to encounter anything I absolutely hate, just plenty of meh.

winterlude May 13, 2015

Yes, please! Thanks for the info and the encouragement. I still haven't been sniffing, but that is partly due to the fact I'm in the middle of nowhere. Osswald sounds amazing and spending afternoon with you would be such fun!

leathermountain May 13, 2015

Josie, you are the best! March, thanks for spotlighting Josie!

J. Tong May 13, 2015

I've always been intimidated by perfume boutiques and have stuck mostly to department stores for my sniffing. One day, I'll muster up more courage... Josie, I'm wondering if you wear perfume when you work? How do you choose which scent you'll spritz that day?

Bridget B May 13, 2015

I'm only a couple of hours away from NYC and will have to put Osswalds on my list for my next visit! thanks for the draw!

FeralJasmine May 13, 2015

I have had delightful phone calls with Josie, resulting in delightful packages. Which makes me recall that we haven't talked in a while...

bevfred May 13, 2015

I'm hoping to go to NY in the fall and Osswald is on my list for sure. Josie sounds like a dream. I too wonder about olfactory overload. I'm considering working in a high end niche boutique. Please enter me in the draw.

Kathryn May 13, 2015

The two times I've been to Osswald the customer service has been extraordinary. The same has been true of Twisted Lily in Brooklyn and Indigo Perfumery in Cleveland. When I'm not just sniffing but actually buying a bottle these are the places I'll go, not to the places with a less welcoming atmosphere. Unfortunately, there are several of those, too. When I wear a perfume I really appreciate having some good memories of its purchase wafting along with it.

Lera May 13, 2015

I find SA quite understanding when I tell them that I'm just browsing. I don't live in NY but I can imagine how nice Osswald is! Thank you for the giveaway!

Elisa P May 13, 2015

I've only visited Osswald once and it was after this year's "big" snowstorm and Osswald was one of the few places open that day. It was, indeed, an inviting and fun experience! I have encountered the rogue dept store SA who likes to just schmooze (I think they get kinda bored). I'm wondering if you ever advise a customer to NOT buy on first sniff. Must be hard to be a perfumista and also an SA! (I'm in the US)

Caroline May 13, 2015

I'm dying to visit Osswald! I travel to NYC once or twice/year, but my lodgings are on the upper east side, and so far I've only been to the usual: Barneys, Bergdorf, Saks. I honestly don't have a difficult time with SAs and mostly find them accomodating. My current frustration is with my usually favorite retailer, Nordstrom. The local branch has abandoned the practice of letting customers make their own samples, and it's often a challenge to find someone to assist. Frustrates me when I hear other branches still allow the self-made samples. First world problems! Will have to find out subway instructions for getting to Osswald--thanks for the interview!

Deva May 13, 2015

Great post! Very interesting to get a perspective from the other side. I have never been to Osswald, but for me I would imagine it to be the equivalent of a huge bookstore- I enter and get lost for days!

Eleebelle May 13, 2015

When I want to go sniffing, my only real option is the mall, which has a limited range. Of course, I feel guilty/disheartened that I'm often willing to make a purchase, but can't find anything I want. I wish we had a store like Osswald in my area! It will definitely be on my must-visit list if I'm ever in NY. The experience sounds truly wonderful.

thegoddessrena May 13, 2015

I love Osswald and love to go there especially with other perfumistas. I will miss it once I move back to Boston.

Connie May 13, 2015

LOVE Osswald and Josie sounds very sweet. I visited just this past weekend and the SAs were very kind to my Mom and I. I'd love to enter the giveaway.

poodle May 13, 2015

Aww, ain't she just the sweetest thing? Love hearing the insight from the other side of the counter. I'm also a big fan of Osswald and Josie of course so maybe my opinion here is not objective.

TheCatsMother May 13, 2015

If i get the chance to go back to New York, I will most definitely be going to seek out Josie at Osswald - she sounds like the perfect perfume person to talk to! Unfortunately it looks like i cant enter the am in UK! :-(

Laurels May 13, 2015

Do most people really prefer "fresh" and "clean" perfumes? The SAs at my local department store use those two adjectives almost exclusively, and I wondered if that's marketing or if those are the things customers are usually asking for. (Oddly, they're never actually pointing me to the Fresh and Clean brands.)

Laurels May 13, 2015

Oh, good question! I've wondered about that, too.

Sweetie (@sweetieglitter) May 13, 2015

Thank you so much for a very interesting interview, Josie! If I could as a question it would be how do you handle olfactory overload everyday? Is there a trick to it that you learn or do you end up going home with a headache every night? I've always been curious about that. :) thanks again for the interview, I really enjoyed reading it!

gentianacraciun May 13, 2015

Thank you, Josie, for the useful info you shared to us and for the kindness. Thank you, March for inviting Josie... There are a few good hints in this article of how to handle target-oriented SA-s... that frequently are disappointed by my sniffing with no purpose/ purchase and, sometimes, put me in unconfortable situations, or react far from what we can call kind... Since a couple of years I kind of avoid the local Sephora, Douglas and Marionnaud, because most of the SA-s i knew - women in their 30's and 40's, who were very kind, had a lot of things to say and liked and KNEW perfume-talk, (perfume was a real passion for them not just business, I could spend half a day sniffing and talking in the store), simply disappeared and were replaced by pretty, decorative girlies who have about 10 words in their perfume vocabulary... :( Usually the pumped-up commercial description of the NEWEST and TRENDIEST fragrance they want to sell you... Nice looking, perfect hairdo, perfect nails, dresscode, commercial attitude... looking like modern fairies... but they can be as bad as real sharks ! They don't know or don't want to communicate otherwise than manipulative or sales-oriented and sometimes can be even rude.... :( Thanks God, there still exist people like Josie... I met a few very nice and passionate people at some niche stores in Bucharest.

Mangifera May 13, 2015

Josie, thank you for the wonderful insight! You are such a fount of information. Having been on the other side of the counter I can't stress the importance of asking questions and letting the SA know what you really want and need. As a newbie, I've visited Osswald twice but I still feel like I haven't done it justice. March's idea of moving in for two days....hmmm....Might have to check hotel specials. Will definitely look you up.

edpgypsy May 13, 2015

It is so great to hear a perspective from the other side of the counter. Would love to visit one day!

AllGirlMafia May 13, 2015

I have always been too intimidated to freely test in a department store for fear of eyes and expectations on me! I loved this interview though, Josie you sound like the most approachable sales woman ever! Thank you for the giveaway : )

Em May 13, 2015

I heart Osswald SO MUCH -- I first visited not long after they opened, and found the glossy white poshness actually had a warm and friendly staff. My BFF and I go there as often as we can, which is still rarely, but I recommend it to everyone I know as the best experience in town.