The fragrance industry has certainly been undergoing changes as of late, from the proliferation of dupe brands to overnight TikTok successes and ingredients transparency-driven narratives. These infrastructural shifts are indicative of a perfume consumer who is looking for products differently, engaging differently, and buying differently.
A single signature scent feels like a relic of the past. Instead, individuals are diving into a cosmical pool of perfumes, ranging from the highly priced but highly coveted (Baccarat Rouge 540) to more affordable and playful delights (Sol de Janeiro).
While prestige fragrance has been witnessing an unprecedented boom recently, the most recent transformation has been happening at a mass level. For example, in the UK fragrance market, 63% of sales in 2023 will be non-luxury. In the past often dismissed as a “fragrance graveyard” with limited testing opportunities, bottles locked away behind a counter or on transparent shelves, mass fragrance sales still constitute 40% of market sales according to IMARC.
This reinvigoration of the perfume purchase at your local drugstore is twofold. Given the rising cost of living, many consumers are looking for more affordable options, and with a more experimental style of wearing fragrances, smaller-sized and lower-priced options are an understandable choice for the ever-evolving fragrance wardrobe. Retailers such as Ulta Beauty, Target, and Walmart are expanding their assortments in response.
“It’s an exciting time for fragrance at Ulta Beauty, and we’re seeing enthusiasm for the category continue to grow. We know the journey to discovering one’s signature scent is no longer linear. Today’s fragrance consumer is passionate, creative, and fluid, and now, with social communities helping fuel discovery, the process to purchase perfume is a fun and immersive way for beauty lovers to explore the category and play dress up through scent,” comments Penny Coy, Vice President of Merchandising. Coy confirms experimentation across brands, price points, and formats, with customers purchasing from both classic and contemporary brands, while others use scent in more aromatherapeutic and self-care contexts.
She pinpoints the proliferation of celebrity fragrances by Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Charli D’Amelio, which have gathered an engaged audience amongst the Gen Z crowd, as a source of growth in recent years. “Our Gen Z guests seek these celebrity-founded brands when they shop in our stores and often use these scents as a way to personally connect with their favorite celebrities and influencers. We’re also seeing younger guests gravitate towards luxury fragrances, as the beauty category serves as a natural entry point to luxury,” she comments. With Ulta recently expanding its luxury offerings–expanding to include heavy hitters such as Tom Ford, Chanel, and Dior– this assortment is only sure to keep growing in the near future.
Redefining Fragrance at Mass
The magic that Maesa created by bringing salon-level haircare to mass with Kristin Ess Hair and Andrew Fitzsimons Hair is now being echoed in the manufacturer’s fragrance approach. The company debuted Finer’y (a range of nine fragrances in eau de parfum and body spray formats) in March 2023 and Mix:Bar in 2021, both at Target. At the time of launch, industry estimates for Finer’y’s first year in business were at $35 million. Finer’y hit TikTok viral status with #fineryfragrance garnering over 6.7 billion views on the app, and even before launch, 3 influencer videos discussed the brand had amassed 5 million views. Mix:Bar’s 2022 sales reached over $20 million.
Mix:Bar's and Finer'y's bestsellers point to two evolving trends. Dana Steinfeld, Senior Vice President, Marketing & Product Development at Maesa, pinpoints to a “vanilla renaissance” in scents across all gender categories based on consumer desires for nostalgia and comfort that has also pushed general sales of the gourmand category, as evidenced in the popularity of Sweet on the Outside and Vanilla Bourbon. But there is also a return to “green freshness” and “citrus, beachy scents,” which she sees as indicative of reconnecting to nature and a search for wellness through scent, as the sales of Before the Rainbow and Pear Blossom indicate.
Speaking on the developmental journey of both brands, Steinfeld tells BeautyMatter, “It's not so much focused on the mass experience, but more about making sure everybody is seen and that these types of luxuries are accessible. The vehicle is mass retailers because that's where they're being sold, but the impetus behind it is because fragrance has always been this category that was intentionally out of reach.”
Finer’y’s 60ml eau de parfum bottle costs $27.99, $12.99 for a 150ml body spray; a Mix Bar 50ml bottle retails for $19.99 and $9.99 for a 150ml body mist. While the mass fragrance experience in the past belonged to brands like Impulse, Victoria’s Secret, or Bath & Body Works, these didn't give the same shopping experience as their high-end counterparts, where narratives, notes, and fragrance families were divulged in order to fuel the shopping experience.
As to whether this shopper is looking for different things than their luxury counterparts, Steinfeld notes: “At the end of the day, what does everybody want? They want a product that does what it says it's going to do and makes them feel great. We're all shopping for the same things, we just have different wallets and different motivations behind what is ticking the box for us.”
The Dupe Hunters
While Finer’y’s premise focused on translating picturesque scenes (the calm after the rain, the mystery of midnight) into cohesive fragrance narratives—“It was just about storytelling, finding the scent experience, taking you into a moment that you wanted to be a part of, fragrance stories brought to life visually,” Steinfeld explains—some customers aren’t just loving them as stand-alone creations, but “dupes” for more pricey counterparts: Not Another Cherry as an alternative for Tom Ford’s Lost Cherry, Jungle Santal for Le Labo Santal 33, and Flower Bed for Chanel Chance.
“Dupe culture has completely done a 180. When a consumer identifies something as a dupe, in my opinion today as it relates to beauty, it's because they've found something amazing that they can afford. If you're affordable and not being called a dupe of something, it's almost a miss. Yes, a lot of people are looking for the dupe version of something that's extremely expensive, but you also see dupes for something they can't find or what is [more] affordable. It's relative, you don't only need to find savings for things that are $500,” Steinfeld says. Dupes are also a helpful stand-in in terms of accessibility, whether an item is discontinued or not stocked by an accessible retailer.
Ask one industry member and they may say dupes are exploiting creative ideas that others have created before them, mostly using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. Ask another and they see it as a democratic medium of making scent experiences more accessible to those with more shallow pockets or no niche fragrance boutique close by.
The likes of Dossier and Alt fragrances have built entire (and successful) business models off of this development. Dossier recently expanded its previously online-only presence with 1,400 Walmart doors after launching with the retailer online in September 2021. According to its founder, the brand has seen triple-digit sales growth. Zara fragrances, though not marketing themselves intentionally as dupe fragrances, have followed suit—Gardenia as a stand-in for YSL Black Opium or Red Temptation instead of Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540 for example.
Could the term “dupe” be evolving into the concept of a reference point rather than a copycat? After all, how many ideas are truly original in the creative realm? Whether the reference is a flower or an homage to the first chypre, fragrance, in a sense, has been duping itself forever.
“Art is all about finding new ways to deliver something beautiful. Something that's familiar is always going to be the easiest way to get there. How many truly new ideas exist in the world? There's just ways to better each other and build off the ideas that have come before and bring in newness, and there's nothing wrong with that,” Steinfeld adds.
Scent Wardrobes over Signature Scents
Wearing the same fragrance day in, day out was a perfume trademark for traditionalists. After all, how many generations can recite the fragrance their grandmother wore? Today’s scent aficionado will have too many variations to pin them down.
“It’s no longer about finding one signature scent that will be worn loyally for years, but rather one scent for every day of the week that evokes the current mood. As a result, our guests are moving through the category more fluidly and at a faster pace, layering different fragrances across all notes and price points to create their own unique scent,” Coy states.
“For the new fragrance customer, it’s not just about one signature scent, it’s about being equipped with a variety of products for any occasion—whether it be going to work, date night, or a special event,” Jennifer Giglio Capuano, Macy’s Vice President, DBM, Fragrances, tells BeautyMatter. To help customers find the fragrance in question, Macy’s offers a Fragrance Finder Quiz, which helps them to discover a new product based off of their favorite smells or previous product purchases. After entering their favorite scents, the occasion type, and gender preference, users are left with a fragrance profile and list of recommended products.
“I don't know anyone that has a signature fragrance anymore. On TikTok, it's [about] mixing and matching from different brands already. This attitude and behavior of one fragrance all the time for men is a little bit slower to change, but for women, especially looking at Gen Z and millennials, it’s just an obsolete concept,” Steinfeld comments. She also notes these generations as being more brand- and price-agnostic. They are also less precious about wearing one fragrance at a time, instead mixing and matching different perfumes.
Mix:Bar speaks to the at-home fragrance alchemist, someone looking to layer and mix and match different scents to create their own unique concoction. “Mix Bar is very much about personalization and and cocktailing. It’s been such a relevant concept that's been growing across every category, but there wasn't a fragrance brand that was serving that,” Steinfeld comments.
All seven of Mix:Bar’s fragrances (Cloud Musk, Coconut Palm, Blackberry Tonic, Vanilla Bourbon, Wood Elixir, Glass Rose, Tangerine Squeeze) were developed with this compatibility factor in mind. “It was a really, really difficult development process because we wanted to ensure that the fragrances were complex, but not overly so to the point that you would create a ‘scent soup’ on your body when you started to mix them,” Steinfeld comments. “There was this tension between linearity, complexity, but also directness, so making sure to see the ingredients’ story come through clearly and being able to, as a consumer, understand, that's going complement this and have it be intuitive.”
A driving force behind how consumers are discovering fragrances and deciding to buy them is the behemoth that is TikTok. “Social media is where many trends are created and where customers are looking to for inspiration,” Capuano adds. #perfumetiktok currently has over 6.4 billion views, while #perfumetok has 2.8 billion views.
The power of social media in encouraging blind buys and cross-brand exploration is not to be underestimated. “Compelling content has helped to guide discovery for our guests, with many indulging in a new scent without trying it first. The platform has also been a place for guests to uncover dupes for their favorite luxury scents. We predict social media will only further ignite curiosity for the category, especially as guests continue to use platforms like TikTok as a tool for beauty education and discovery,” Coy adds.
“We’ve felt the impact [of TikTok] through being very much part of the conversation. Everyone's a fragrance expert on TikTok, some have 10 million or 30 followers, but the way people are speaking to the scents they use and why and what they mix them with and showing their collections, that culture has accelerated the appreciation and understanding of the category,” Steinfeld remarks. “It's brought knowledge, and the consumer across every beauty category has gotten so savvy—knows ingredients, understands how to see through the smoke and mirrors in the beauty industry to some extent. Fragrance forever was an exception, and I think that #perfumetok has been a game changer for that.”
In terms of how brand’s can best speak to this consumer, Steinfeld notes: “It's this balance of ensuring that you're delivering fragrances that are unique, impactful, memorable, and emotionally stirring that they're going to come back for but then also pulsing a newness because innovation is key, especially in fragrance now. There's so many different channels competing for your dollars, so bringing them in through curiosity is really important as well. A brand has to be engaging with their audience, ensuring that there's a connection there and making sure that the messaging, the story, and the most emotional reason to connect with the brand is clear.”
While for some brands, achieving TikTok virality (the still uncapturable unicorn) or connecting with the right influencer is the key to success, for others, an immersive retail space or online space can be the golden ticket. “Having your favorite influencer post is tenfold valuable in terms of converting a purchase or getting that curiosity to try. But to sell fragrance through an online experience, it's all about making your visuals and content ‘smell.’ You have to be able to watch a three-second clip about a fragrance and get it. That’s a really important way to be successful in how you communicate your scent through online,” Steinfeld notes.
Mindset over Demographic
Gen Z is the driving force for innovation in the category. As Coy notes: “For them, authenticity and self-expression are key when it comes to the brands that resonate most with them, so it’s important the offering reflects their beauty wants, needs, and value. The products and brands that effectively communicate with them are ones that not only encompass a diverse and inclusive offering across price points, scent notes and sustainability, but ones that are socially fueled and backed through platforms and influencers they trust.”
Ulta’s Conscious Beauty assortment helps these shoppers navigate the assortment with the sustainability credentials that speak to them, including Ralph Lauren Polo Earth Eau de Toilette, which contains seven sustainably sourced ingredients. “We expect prestige and legacy fragrance brands will continue to evolve in order to meet the beauty wants, needs, and values of this influential generation and, importantly, help to leave a positive legacy for the planet,” Coy adds.
But before pigeonholing the new fragrance consumer to a certain age bracket, Steinfeld notes that it’s a mindset-first audience, spanning different retailers and ages. Even online-only brands, supported by this curious and experimental audience, are witnessing immense success without even needing to sell their products in-store—a scent like Glossier You being just one example.
“The broad trends we are seeing in the marketplace suggest that spending power is coming from the customer who is typically well-established in their career and possesses disposable income to invest in a fragrance wardrobe. The trend drivers are coming from the TikTok generation, and they have the power to catapult a product into a multimillion-dollar, sold-out commodity overnight,” Capuano summarizes.
“The exciting way to approach the new informed beauty consumer is to not make assumptions about how certain people only buy from certain types of brands or certain things. As a modern brand you have to be thinking about and welcoming to everyone,” Steinfeld notes. Part of this evolution could include not having fragrance aisles separated by gender.
Beyond the Bottle
Yes, hype factors and beautiful packaging can go a long way, but for some fragrance purchases, it’s about more than just a pretty scent or appearance. “The fragrance customer of tomorrow is more thoughtful than ever before. There are new considerations at play when it comes to the purchase choice: Does the brand offer sustainable packaging? Is the formulation derived from clean elements? Does the bottle refill?” Capuano states. “These factors are becoming table stakes for fragrances houses as they consider the social impact of their brands. The customer is looking for a variety of choices that feel personalized and for products that allow them to amplify their personal style and expand their fragrance wardrobe in a unique way.”
This also means speaking to the customer in more engaging and customized ways as a retailer. “The customer wants a more personalized approach; the messages should feel relevant to their shopping habits and preferences. Retailers also need to show up with authentic content on the social platforms that their customers frequent,” Capuano adds. For Macy’s, this includes their live-stream shopping platform, which launched back in 2021, that incorporates search optimization and personalization tools.
The perfume purchaser of years to come is as diverse and experience-seeking as the vast arrangement of products on the shelves. Mass retailers were often overlooked when it came to the fragrance shopping experience—which was understandable given that the consumer was faced with messy blotter arrangements, missing tester bottles, and a general feeling of being lost among the shelves with no aid in sight, which paled in comparison to a luxury boutique offering. The customer entering these spaces today comes armed with a list of the brands and fragrances they are looking to buy, backed by an arsenal of online knowledge and a forever curious mindset.
Whereas in past decades lower-priced offerings may have been scoffed at as being “lesser than” in contrast to a $200+ bottle of perfume, that very same customer will now gleefully grab a $30 bottle off the shelf, walking away with a spring in their step knowing they hold in their hands a bottle of olfactory joy––without the buyer’s remorse of an exorbitant price tag. As Coy proclaims: “Much like today’s fragrance consumer, we expect consumers of tomorrow will further prove that there are limitless possibilities in a bottle.”
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