WASHINGTON, D.C.

Five o'clock on the Friday before Mother's Day probably wasn't the best time to go looking for a summer fragrance for myself.

Near the fragrance bar of Hecht's department store in downtown Washington, hordes of women and a few men were examining fragrance gift sets displayed on small tables.

Others were lined up 12 deep waiting for help from one smiling, but understandably frazzled, sales associate.

A second counter was tucked behind the first one, unnoticed by most shoppers. Half hidden by a Mother's Day display, a sales associate there was biding her time straightening rows of yellow boxes of L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci.

"I'm looking for a summer fragrance," I told her.

She enthusiastically sprayed the back of my right hand with L'Air du Temps and told me the fragrance is a "classic" and "always elegant." I agreed it was nice and summery.

She couldn't find the tester for her second recommendation, the Van Cleef eau de parfum, so she pumped some Van Cleef lotion onto the back of my left hand. It smelled slightly medicinal.

Then she found the tester and enthusiastically sprayed some perfume on the same spot -- as well as on my ring, my Bulova watch and my jacket cuff.

The lotion-perfume combination smelled awful, so I asked her if she had anything else.

Steering me to a counter in the back -- past Giorgio Armani's Gio, Calvin Klein's Obsession and 360O by Perry Ellis -- the sales associate found a bottle of Paris by Yves Saint Laurent.

The fragrance is fashioned from 100 different roses, she said, squirting it on my wrist.

"This one is made especially for brides to be," she said cunningly.

I had told her earlier that my fiance might buy me a fragrance.

"Very romantic," I agreed.

Rather than showing me more of the dozens of fragrances at the counter, the sales associate said those were the only three she would recommend for a woman my age to wear in the summertime."For a young woman you need a light perfume," she said. "When I get into an elevator with a young woman wearing a heavy perfume, I have to leave."

She placed her hand dramatically over her nose.

The associate asked if I had any more questions and then encouraged me to bring my fiancÄ to another area Hecht's store where she would be working Saturday and Sunday. That way I could let the scent mingle with my skin for awhile and my fiance could smell the fragrance, she advised.

But the weather was so beautiful that weekend that we went for a long bike ride, instead.

SEATTLE

I thought, for a change, I would buy my wife a summer fragrance.

To start my mission, I ventured to the Nordstrom store in Southcenter Mall in suburban Seattle to do a bit of research. I had barely set foot in the department before a salesperson asked if she could help me.

"I'm on a little scouting trip," I told her. "My wife was talking about wanting a summer fragrance. I'm not quite sure what that is and how it differs from a winter fragrance or a spring fragrance."

She smiled sympathetically.

"Usually the summer fragrance is lighter and probably more floral," she said. "A lot of women will associate winter fragrance with being a little more spicy."

She paused to let that information sink in. "What does she wear now?"

"Chanel No. 22, for many years," I said. "Her birthday is coming up, and I've already taken care of Mother's Day. I heard her mention summer fragrance, so I thought I'd find out what it's about and what you have along those lines."

"Okay, I'll show you Jessica McClintock," she said, as she sprayed some on a scent card and offered it to me. "Isn't that pretty?"

"I like it," I said. "Smells summery to me."

"It does, doesn't it. See? Now you know what they are all talking about," she said with good humor. "It contains lily of the valley. It's very light and floral, wonderful for daytime."After I cleared my sense of smell with the small open dish of coffee beans on the counter, I was ready to try another scent.

"I think you'll like this one, too," she said. "This is Carolina Herrera. It's a little lighter and a little different. It's very feminine, a bit fruity and flowery."

After sampling a scent strip, I offered, "There are so many subtleties with each fragrance."

"Yes," she said empathetically, "and as they dry, they will change to be even more particular. Carolina Herrera is an eau de parfum. It starts at $36 for one ounce, $52 for a 1.7-oz. and $75 for the large 3.4-oz. There is a little gift set, too, for $50. It comes with a 1.5-oz. talc and 1.7-oz. body lotion and a cosmetic bag."

"How long is that available?"

"Until they're gone," she said with a smile. "We've had it for a couple of weeks."

"I like the Jessica McClintock," I announced.

"Right now, there is a gift-with-purchase with the Jessica McClintock. It comes with this little bag. Inside is a miniature purse spray and perfumed body powder. The sprays are really nice. They make them so you can refill them or put them in a travel size. The large is $55, and she makes a smaller 1.7-oz. version for $36."

"Is it available in any other forms?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, "body lotion, bath and shower gel, soap and body cream."

I thanked her for her help.

"Would you like to take the scent cards with you? You can lay them around and see if she likes them."

She told me her name and gave me a business card. I appreciated the fact that she let me sample the scents at a very leisurely pace and that, even though she was well versed in her product, she didn't go into a prolonged, high-pressure sales spiel.

NEW ORLEANS

It was a typical late spring weekend in the Crescent City, with tourists and conventioneers taking advantage of the last vestiges of cool weather before the serious summer sizzle sets in.Saks Fifth Avenue, the anchor store of the Canal Place Shopping Centre, was awash with customers. A bearded man in shorts bellied up to the fragrance bar and, from a thick wad of green bills, casually counted out five crisp hundreds to exchange for several bottles of perfume and body lotion.

Behind him, a thin woman dressed in black was sampling Antonia's Flowers for anyone whose attention she could grab.

"This is a scent that is exclusive to Saks," she said by way of introducing herself to me. "It's made by a woman whose friends told her they loved the scents of the flowers in her flower shop. So she bottled the best of them. It's available only at 10 Saks stores around the country."

She offered me a sample card and rattled off the prices: $40 for a 1.7-oz. spray and atomizer. The atomizer, she confided, is guaranteed not to break. To underscore her claim, she unscrewed the bottle and explained how it would never malfunction.

She let me take the bottle to get a whiff. When I responded that it smelled a little bit like gin, she kindly suppressed her disdain for my olfactory ineptitude.

"Here, smell it on my wrist," she offered, not missing a cue to continue quoting prices: $55 for the 3.4-oz. size, which included a gift of a sample size of the body lotion.

She was good -- thorough, pleasant and persistent.

"A summer fragrance? This is definitely one of those," she said, addressing my inquiry, and spending the next 10 minutes walking me through the other options -- never hinting that she was the least bit discouraged by my noncommittal responses.

Mid-way through the tour, she consulted briefly with an associate who reminded her of O de Lancome.

"It was introduced at Mother's Day, and when we run out, we're out," she said.

When I asked if she had a sample card, she tore at a Kleenex tissue, sprayed some into the folds and handed it to me.

"Why would I need a summer fragrance?" I asked."Oh, because," she replied in a manner that masked her probable thought that my question was foolish.

"Why can't I just make do with the fragrances I have?" I continued.

"Well, you could," she acquiesced. "But the summers here -- are you from New Orleans? -- are so torturously hot that you really need something lighter.

"There's Escada," she raced on, leading me to the fragrance bar tray. When she couldn't find Escada's fragrance sample from among the array, she found Escada's body lotion sample and allowed me to smear some on my hand.

Then she slipped behind the counter and produced a packaged bottle from a display case. "It's wonderfully fruity -- $35 for one ounce," she explained. "And this is L'Eau d'Issey, made of white flowers -- $45 for the 1.7-oz. and $68 for the 3.4-oz."

To give me a bit of breathing room to make my decision, she glided to a customer standing nearby to inquire if she needed any help.

A stand-alone Annick Goutal display caught my eye in an area adjacent to the fragrance bar. It was impressive, if only because it had been allotted so much space: a counter, two shelving units and a round table, all filled with fragrances, lotions and Goutal's signature gold-leaf mirrors.

Another sales associate was behind me now, asking if I needed any more help. When I hesitated for a moment, she interceded by suggesting I try Annick Goutal's Gardenia Passion. "It's the most well-known and it's the most popular," she said.

As she located it among the other Annick Goutal samples, a customer sidled up next to us and, as if on cue, asked for Annick Goutal's Passion.

Triumphantly, the sales associate handed the bottle to the customer, and whispered to me, "What did I tell you? See, it's the top seller."

I commented on the generous amount of display space devoted to Annick Goutal. "Oh, yes. We had the fragrances at the fragrance bar before," said the saleswoman. "We went to this arrangement around the first of the year when she came out with all this," she added, with a sweeping glance at all the products.The associate asked if I had any other questions, and when I said I didn't, she excused herself apologetically. Within moments she was ringing up a sale for another couple. As I turned to leave, she waved and murmured the traditional Louisiana goodby, "Y'all come on back, you hear?"

--CAROL EMERT / ROBERT SPECTOR / SHARON DONOVAN

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