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!