Friday, 11 October 2013

Manufacturers' samples - the long and the short(age) of it

Over the five years of my interest in perfume, I have noticed a gradual decline in the availability of manufacturers' perfume samples - more so in the mainstream segment of the market, but to a degree also in niche.  It used to be the case that you would ask a sales assistant in a department store or the duty free section of an airport if she had a sample of the latest release, and she would open the bottom drawer of the fixture to reveal serried ranks of little carded samples of the scent in question - and of many other, older scents displayed.

These days I am more likely to be greeted with a blank look when I inquire about the availability of a sample, or the news that: 'We had some right after (insert name of perfume) came out, but they are all gone now'.  Boots - that stalwart of the designer perfume retailing scene - stopped stocking samples some time ago.  Whether this can be correlated with Nick Gilbert's departure to pastures new and more deserving I cannot say... ;-)  And when I popped into a large M & S in Preston last March, keen to try the new line created for the store chain by Lyn Harris, they only had a 'scratch and sniff' card for one of the three female scents, and none for the men's range.  The staff there couldn't have been more helpful, however, hastily fashioning decanting receptacles for me out of tester pots for face cream which they sealed with sticky tape.

Then in Paris in June, the Frédéric Malle stand in Printemps had no samples of Denise Van Outen (sorry - Dries Van Noten) - had never had them I think - but didn't bat an eyelid when I asked to make my own using one of my snap-on ink pots Freddie of Smellythoughts got me into.  Ormonde Jayne once made me up a sample of Tiare after I sent them my own vial in an SAE, ditto Fortnum & Mason's when I was after ones of the Comtessa di Castiglione scent I spied in Sidmouth this summer. Actually that isn't strictly true - they mislaid my envelope with the empty vials in it and decanted a bit into two screw top Dior pots that may also have been destined for make up samples by the looks of them.

Manufacturers' carded samples - an endangered species?

Which reminds me that Dior - in Selfridges, and possibly generally - have now stopped giving out those generous 4ml pots of their Privée range that a certain perfumista friend of mine used to routinely snaffle for me every time she was passing... ;-)  And the Chanel Exclusifs 5ml ones are of course as rare as hens' teeth. You would probably have to queue up the night before the launch with a sleeping bag to score one of those coveted 5ml bottles now.  I missed the 1932 mini in Glasgow, for example, which was gone in a blink of an eye apparently.  And don't get me started on Le Labo - let's just say that when I think of them in this particular connection, the words 'blood' and 'stone' spring to mind...;-)

So you get the picture...a general backing off from the provision of samples for in-home trial, a general fobbing off with bits of card - sometimes enormous oversized square bits of card!  Or ribbon, or some other scrap of silky cloth if you are lucky, which in fairness do retain the scent quite well, though it is not the same thing at all as being able to apply it on skin.  Or we are invited to sniff scrumpled bits of tissue squashed into votive glasses, or stick our noses down metal trumpets, or inside perspex tuboid things - it's all rather strange...And on the basis of this we are meant to know if we wish to spring for a full bottle or not. the other end of the scale there are still some houses which are generous - perhaps too generous - with their samples.  Take Hermès, for example, who give out 4ml samples in long glass-stoppered vials slipped into those distinctive orange card cases.  Hermès has to be the most forthcoming with samples of all the luxury brands I know, and I am borderline ashamed of the times I have sauntered in (invariably wearing my good, sample scoring coat or its summer frock equivalent, depending on the season), spun some line about a friend / husband / relative with an upcoming birthday / wedding / anniversary, and walked out with not one but two of the 4ml vials.  For two fit better into the card case than one - one just rattles around, quite frankly - so the SA usually cracks and sticks two in there, one for me and one for my imaginary friend.  In my defence, I have genuinely given away a number of the Hermès samples I have procured using various ruses - my old English teacher did wear Vetiver Tonka at her wedding (er...the sample, not a full bottle) - but I cannot pretend not to have squirrelled away a few vials for my own nefarious use.  Though some of the ones pictured above were gifts to me by friends and relations on similar morally questionable foraging missions.

How 'grand' is my Grand Bal sample?!

Then there was my super tall grande(!) Dior sample of Grand Bal, which should have been a gift with purchase, but which the SA in a branch of Dior in Paris gave me for no good reason at all, other than that I complimented her on her Swarovski crystal-encrusted lips.  And this despite the apparent clamp down on even the 4ml Dior pots.  Then in Germany once, in a small niche perfumery in Wasserburg, the assistant showered me with a fistful of carded samples, plus a large mini of Micallef Hiver, and that was just for shooting the breeze with her.  So there are still some great instances of unprovoked generosity, which as I say remains positively systemic within Hermès. ;-)

Micallef mini bag - you'll have to imagine the bottle!

But the problem with large samples is that you may never need to buy a bottle, for if you have a few of those 4ml-ers away they will quickly accumulate to nearly 15ml, the size many perfumistas agree is the ideal for a 'full bottle'.  I have just bought a bottle of En Voyage Perfumes' Zelda, for example, which is of that order I think.  So Hermès may be shooting themselves in the foot there, and Dior too, though they seem to have caught themselves on now pretty much.

So I would be interested to hear about your experiences in terms of sample scoring...specifically:

Are manufacturers' samples becoming more scarce generally?

Is a 4ml sample too generous for the brand's own good?

Are you also a wee bit sheepish about your own sample scoring forays?


odonata9 said...

I haven't noticed any difference in sample offering, but then I haven't been perfume shopping in months. I have had the same experience at the Hermes here in San Diego. I was so hesitant to go in, fearing snooty SAs, and they couldn't have been nicer or more generous. They even gave me a super adorable mini of Voyage since they were out of samples. At the price of the Hermessences, they certainly aren't getting me to buy them when they are easy enough to get the large samples of. They must make enough money off those Kelly bags and silk scarves!

Vanessa said...

Hi odonata9,

Nice to hear from you! I was interested to read about your similar experience in your local branch of Hermes, and can imagine that a mini of Voyage would look especially cute. The brand does seem to have a lovely and generous bunch of SAs the world over. And you may well be onto something in your theory about where Hermes make their money - that thought occurred to me right after I posted this... ;-)

odonata9 said...

It seems that blogger has eaten my comment! But yes, I have been MIA from perfume blogs and even wearing perfume for the last 2 months or so, as I gave birth to twin girls in August! So of course, I haven't had the time. You should be honored that you are the first blog I'm catching up on!

Tara said...

Hi V

Yes, it's getting harder to "score" samples these days. Hermes are definitely the most generous, though they never have Ambre Narguile or Vetiver Tonka in stock when I go. Chanel do 2ml sprays instead of those gorgeous minis but at least they still do them. Try asking for a sample for any brand in Liberty! Thank goodness for Les Senteurs - if you can make the journey anyway. I wonder if the fact that quite a lot of the larger samples end up on ebay has anything to do with it.

Hopefully I wasn't the sole reason Dior stopped doing those great 4ml samples :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Seems that your experience concurs with mine. I didn't know Chanel had switched to 2ml samples, but as you say, at least they are still doing some. That is very true about Liberty's, haha, while Les Senteurs are much more amenable. I suppose they are acting as the go-between creating the manufacturer sample that may no longer be provided.

And I am sure that Dior's tougher line on sample pots is not all to do with your covert missions on my behalf (glad you don't mind being outed!), but you may have been a significant factor. ;-)

Vanessa said...

Hi odonata9,

Oh my - many congratulations on the birth of your twins! You will have your hands full, no question. And yes, I most certainly am honoured that you have found the time to come back to blog reading, and that mine should happen to be first. :-). All the best with the coming months - do twins mean twice the sleep deprivation or do they synchronise their feeds, I wonder, also at night?

Martha said...

My impression in the past has been that some manufacturers think of their samples not as samples, but as travel perfumes--which makes a fraction more sense when I consider that the average perfume purchaser doesn't have decanting supplies at home. Many times, I've bought a bottle and been presented of samples *of that scent*, apparently to carry in my purse for touchups. So I suppose in that context, a generous sample would just count as extra-good service--and of course if they don't hand them over before purchase, then the big samples can't discourage said purchase.

For some reason, I rarely ask for samples at the store itself--in fact, it didn't even occur to me to ask at Chanel or Hermes on those rare occasions when I was there. I have been known to email perfume houses begging for samples--Hermes is extremely generous in those circumstances as well--and then I do feel a bit guilty about the fact that the text of my email, while I do ask about a specific perfume, is clearly angling for as many samples, of as many scents, as they'll give me.

Vanessa said...

Hi Martha,

I know just what you mean - that thing of giving away one or more samples of the same perfume! And it must be to facilitate travel, as you say.

The only perfume house I wrote in to to ask for samples was Carner Barcelona, as there was nowhere on my usual circuit where I had a hope of seeing them in store.

And I hope I am not giving readers the impression that I am utterly rapacious when it comes to sample scoring, hehe. ;-) With Hermes and Chanel I have gone in usually with that express intent, either for myself or on someone else's behalf, but often these days I can drift aimlessly round a high end department store for hours, sniffing much less than I set out to do, and asking for fewer samples. I think my haul in Printemps that time was one manufacturer's sample of Musc Nomade (Annick Goutal counters still have a drawerful, for the record!), a homemade one of Dries Van Noten and one the SA made up for me of Tom Ford Lys Fume.

Also, if I really want a sample and I like it, I may well review it, and though Bonkers is a relatively small platform in that sense, even in terms of the time spent writing up my thoughts on the perfume in question I imagine it probably is a fair quid pro quo. That said, I haven't undertaken an analysis of what proportion of samples deliberately hunted down by me get reviewed here - that would be an interesting other question... Or, for that matter, the proportion of samples I review out of those sent speculatively to me by the perfume brands. Which doesn't happen that often, but I don't care for all the ones I am sent, by any means.

Ingeborg said...

Here in Oslo Hermes has no reputation for being generous with samples, it seems to be down to how the customer is dressed. But then again, apart from the big launches, where samples are plentiful for a couple of weeks, many shops keep their samples for customers already known to the staff. Sometimes you get a few (not always in line with your own taste in perfume) as a bonus when having alredy made a purchase. I for one know I have scored more samples in France and Italy (despite notable language barriers) than in Oslo.Some small, independent shops with niche fragrances are noteable exceptions.Since I do not order a lot of perfume online from abroad except for just small decants and samples, I am in fact someone they might have tempted into more purchases if I got more samples for free. As it is, I often buy when on holiday abroad. Plus we can only dream of the kind of bargains which seem to be available at discounters in the US.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ingeborg,

Thanks for stopping by! I was interested to hear the Norwegian angle on all of this, having only visited Sweden since becoming mad about perfume. But I can imagine the market to be a bit similar - certainly the base price of bottles in the likes of high end stores like NK, say, is very high by my standards.

You also mention a different phenomenon of SAs keeping samples back for known customers - I can see how that might go on. And you are right about sometimes getting a random selection of samples with purchases that are not always to one's taste. ;-)

Your view tends to confirm my own thinking that in the perfumista community at least, the lack of samples is not going to help promote purchases of FBs. The presence of very big samples probably isn't going to either... And we could have a whole separate discussion about what effect the availability of decants has on FB purchases that might be worth a post in its own right - it's a topic raised by Andy Tauer in a recent blog post.

Lavanya said...

As I mentioned to you, I used to do a lot of sample scoring in my initial perfume sniffing days. I had a pretty limited perfume budget and literally lived on the samples- wearing, swapping. I had access to niche perfume because of where I lived. The Jo Malone SA was really lovely and she would always give me samples..I think samples definitely work in favor of sales- Orange Blossom and Pom Noir were among my first niche bottles. (though that particular SA wasn't in when my husband bought it ,unfortunately). But I did go to several different Jo Malone counters/stores to get samples of my so I did my share of 'targetted' sampling.

I find that the SAs manning Bond No. 9 counters at Saks fifth avenue are vey enthusiastic about giving out samples, even unasked. Most of the SAs in Neiman Marcus (except that one darling Jo Malone SA) can be ungracious and this is one place where a good coat will make a huge difference. One lady even asked me once, when I stepped in "you haven't yet decided on a scent?" Forget free samples. She had seen me too many times sniffing without buying which is probably what prompted her statement..
Nordstorm is great about making samples. I remember acquiring Tom Ford samples from there. Barneys and Scent bar in LA are really good about samples too and their samples have resulted in purchases.

When my mom visited, she seemed to get samples much more easily. When I walked in with her to the Bottega Veneta showroom (this was in 2011) and asked for a sample, the guy gave me a mini..the bottle is soo adorable (I managed to break part of the cap). Now, it is true that I won't buy a bottle for myself because I have a mini. But then, thats also because I don't love the scent enough. I think large samples pose a danger only when it comes to scents that are not absolute loves but deep likes.

I can't say for sure about sample scarcity since my foraging habits have changed a bit.

I do think 4 ml samples might be a bit much especially for perfumistas. 2 ml is a nice size from a marketing point of view. you use it for a short while, miss it, then buy a bottle..:).

Anonymous said...

Vanessa - Don't get me started. It's ridiculous how stingy the stores and companies have become. And when you ask, the SAs look at you like you have 2 heads. Now, I don't think that anything over 2ml is necessary as you can get a good read on a fragrance with that amount. I don't even think that 1ml is stingy, but nothing?...ridiculous!

Undina said...

Ten years ago mainstream companies produced more samples - for both perfumes and make-up. I know it because for many years I was attending Nordstrom's perfumes events where for a small fee ($10 redeamable against any purchase) you would get, in addition to wine and hors d'oeuvres, a bag full of samples (~20-25 different perfumes). And in other upscale stores (Neiman Marcus, Saks) with each purchase you'd normally be showered with other perfume and skincare samples. Not any more. For a while Nordstrom would resolve that problem with "make your own sample" program but now they are winding it down. I think brands do not want people to base the decision on their actual liking the scent. They bank upon people liking top notes, bottles and bogus stories SAs are telling them. So if they can get away with not spending extra couple of cents from $100 (on top of $3 they pay for juice) - they take advantage of that.

For me samples are samples, I do not "abuse" companies who're good: I almost never wear perfumes from them - I test. The couple of exceptions: I might wear a perfume from a sample if I'm trying to decide if I want to buy more or if I have bought more but want to take a smaller size with me while traveling or to re-apply later.

odonata9 said...

Maybe not twice, but about 1 1/2 times more sleep deprivation! They generally do eat at the same time and if one is asleep, we wake her up to keep them on the same schedule. The main problem is not sleeping at the same time - if they don't, we never get a break! But they are getting better and better at it, hence my having time to check in on perfume blogs again!

Ines said...

I haven't really noticed the lack of samples, but then, I'm generally not buying much or even testing much and requesting some for home.
I think it's become common for the niche shops to make samples out of the tester bottles, probably because they don't get enough samples from the manufacturers? As I generally buy perfumes in such stores, I actually applaud the idea because then you can really get the sample you wanted instead of the samples they have...

Vanessa said...

Wow, odonata9, I am still very impressed at even 50% more work / sleep deprivation. And I quite understand your need to wake the other twin up - hey, something's gotta give! Good for you for coaxing them into a more forgiving routine - I am still amazed you can find any time for yourself eg to read blogs and whatnot, but am glad you can!

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

I am only speaking of my experience when I travel to London or further afield, which is only a few times a year these days - so I don't know it it is all that reliable an indicator of trends. But still I have this hunch that samples are more scarce, as Undina and Steve above confirm.

And I agree that is a good move for the niche stores where you are to make you the samples you really want - like Les Senteurs over here.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Was very interested to hear of your experience of the Nordstrom perfume events over time, and how the samples have dwindled. That was a massive goody bag for the money, especially if it includes wine and nibbles! I think you are probably right that brands want us to be sprung into making hasty on the spot decisions, like buying a time share because of high pressure selling, but on a smaller scale. And I speak as someone who succumbed to that tactic and lived to regret it! ;-(

I guess I see all samples as potential FBs, but if they don't turn out to be 'the one', I don't mind using up the sample by wearing it. There was a chance it might lead to more and it didn't come off, but I needed the sample to know that. And I don't like waste. Though I might equally give it away to someone else who could have that lightbulb moment that might lead to a purchase...

Vanessa said...

Steve, I know, and they seem to think that trying it on a fragrance blotter is all you need to base your purchase decision on. Or to try it once on skin, then come back in 10 minutes and buy the darn thing!

And yes, if I am perfectly honest, I think a sample over 2ml discourages further purchases but equally so does nothing!

Vanessa said...

Hi Lavanya,

Thanks for your long and detailed comment! I similarly cut my niche teeth on Jo Malone(!), and would agree that their generosity with samples - back then, not so much now in my experience - did lead to bottle purchases on my behalf, about 7 in all, though several I have since swapped along. And you are spot on about Bond No 9 being free with their samples - that was true at their Harrods concession, again more so a few years ago. Your story about the lady in Neiman Marcus challenging you on your non-purchase of a scent is cringeworthy - definitely essential good coat country! Then I met a lovely Tom Ford lady in Printemps who made me a sample of Lys Fume, but I don't think the brand has been especially forthcoming elsewhere. Have been fobbed off with blotters in Switzerland, say - see my comment to Steve below. Ended up buying a bottle on Ebay instead...

Oh, and I like your comment about large samples posing a problem in the case of 'deep likes'. Hmm, I think if I had a cute mini like your Bottega Veneta one I might be happy to stop at that, like my l'Arte di Gucci we were discussing.

And yes, I am increasingly coming round to the view that a 2ml sprayable sample is the optimum to give you a good chance to try a perfume, but leave you wanting more.

Sarah said...

Here in Seoul I have never, not once, scored a sample without making a purchase. With the exception of a few stores that don't seem to give samples at all (10 Corso Como being one of them), samples are usually given pretty freely once you've agreed to put your money down on something, but the assistants will deny their existence before then. This is very much in line with the usual practice in stores here for all cosmetics sales - once you agree to buy at least one product, you'll get showered with samples.

I think samples of 4ml or more are possibly a case of brands shooting themselves in the foot, but not giving samples at all is doing much the same. I will not fork out for something I haven't tried on skin at least twice, so why not make it easy for me to do that? 2ml spray samples are my favourite, and I have made several purchases at stores off the back of such samples.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for dropping in with the lowdown on the Seoul sample scene! Sounds like where you are you can only have access to samples after the event ie post-purchase, which rather confounds the notion of 'trying before you buy'. And we are agreed that neither an overly generous nor an overly stingy approach to giving away samples works in the manufacturer's favour. 2ml seems to be the way to go, also in terms of prompting a FB purchase.

Odiferess said...

Hi Vanessa,
Samples really lurk at the root of my fragrant obsession. Years on, I still get giddy over the arrival of a pack in the post or the encounter of a sympathetic Sales Assistant.
I agree with your pondering about wether or not a large size sample such as the Hermessence booty, can be enough to sate our thirst for the frag, thus removing the need for a bottle purchase. Another obvious problem for the perfume houses is that a sample can put us off the perfume! That which might have been a risky long distance blind buy is safely rejected when we smell what we thought would be wonderful and realise it's actually blah/vile/another rendition of a hackneyed genre.
Fascinating read, thank you.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sarah,

I was happy to hear that samples can still be a source of excitement for you, even though you are some years into your hobby. I feel the same up to a point - especially for a much anticipated launch that sounds just like my thing - but my giddiness is more selective these days. ;-)

And you make a very good point about the downside of sampling - it gives us leisure to repent our fleeting interest in a fragrance in-store, instead of being tipped over into an impulsive on-the-spot purchase fuelled by the lack of a sample..

Alex said...

Manufacturers don't provide as many samples as they used to. It is very hard to find testers.

Vanessa said...

Hi Alex,

You may be right at that that testers are also becoming somewhat more scarce.

Bryan Ross said...

I think it's sad that so many companies have eschewed samples for the cheap 'n easy "card blot" approach, but then again it's nice that Hermes is still forthcoming. I'm not sure I understand the wisdom to making a product less available to potential customers, but what do I know?

Vanessa said...

Hi Bryan,

I do so agree that the 'card blot' approach to testing is woefully inadequate. Hermes OTOH, while refreshingly generous, may be shooting itself in the foot, as we discuss above.

Sara said...

Hi, really enjoying the blog :)
Your opinion that samples are getting harder to get certainly seems to tally with my experience. I rang up Hermes and (politely) asked about Vetiver Tonka and Ambre Narguile but even they told me that they no longer send samples out. I'm 100 miles from the nearest boutiques in London. I don't abuse the system but am not going to by a FB untested, thus they have lost a potential customer - so I question whether cutting back on samples is going to be good for companies in the long run.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sara,

Glad you liked it, and thanks for chipping in with your own experience. Well, if Hermes are cutting back on sample provision it really must be the beginning of the end! That said, you could always try offering to send an SAE and make it really easy for them? If that doesn't work, you probably are going to be unlucky. We know they have the samples - maybe even the act of going to the PO with them would be too much effort, though you would think they must have some other reason to go already.

Sara said...

Hi Vanessa,
Thanks for the suggestion, I tried them with this and they said 'Health and safety have advised them not to provide samples because they will get smashed in the post'. Hmmm.
On a brighter note, I just purchased the Discovery Set from Andy Tauer - since he can't send to the UK I took the opportunity, as I will be in Germany for a couple days. I wanted to include his brand new fragrance 'Phi Une Rose de Kandahar' but was concerned it wouldn't arrive in time, so emailed him. I got a sweet email back saying that Phi isn't on sale till after I leave Germany but he will make up a sample early so it's ready in time :) Yay for the small indie brands!

Vanessa said...

Hi Sara,

Health & Safety phooey! And how come mail order full bottles don't get smashed in the post? Or orders of wine glasses from John Lewis? That's a cop out if ever I heard one.

Meanwhile, it sounds as though you are enjoying exceptional - and flexible - service from Andy Tauer. Do let us know how the new rose scent smells when it catches up with you and have a good trip!

Sara said...

Well quite, it rivals some nonsense I got in Space NK a while back - 'we can't make samples - if someone react to a product we can be sued' What?

Thanks, I will give my impressions - my brain can't conceive what the notes will smell like together - Apricot, Cinnamon, Bitter Almond, Rose, Tobacco Absolute, Tonka, Ambergris etc. - so I'm quite excited...

Vanessa said...

Hi Sara,

You're right, that is well up there in the silliness stakes as lame excuses go!

I can't say I could readily visualise - or nasalise - that set of notes either. The bitter almond is a bit of a red flag to me, but am most curious about Phi all the same, given my own recent (partial) volte-face on Tauer. :-)

Sara said...

Hi Vanessa, well I managed to try Phi before I came down with a scent-obliterating cold, so here are my notes:
'First is the rose - powdery and fragile, then it takes an intriguingly green, almost astringent route like crushing handfuls of rose petals and a few leaves in one's fist. And boom! the apricot - very full and fuzzy-skinned with just a little lacing of the almond to give an apricot pastry quality. Now, it's softening and thickening up with a really intriguing dissonant note - the tobacco?
Yes, it's tobacco - not smoky at all, a damp chewy tobacco. The drydown is sweetened up a bit (by the tonka I guess) and this settles into a warm apricot-tobacco. The tobacco is a little disturbing somehow, like a strange conversation late at night. I am compelled to keep sniffing it.'

Vanessa said...

Hi Sara,

Thanks very much for sharing your take on Phi - what an evocative description, and it sounds rather scrumptious once it gets to the apricot stage, I must say. And an intriguing dissonant note of tobacco - that is a bit of a wild card. I love your analogy of 'like a strange conversation late at night'! You have definitely piqued my curiosity even further about Phi, so thanks again. And get better soon! I have just shaken off a two week stinker of a cold myself, so I sympathise.