I was in the mood to treat myself to a new perfume one spring afternoon, as I strolled down Boulevard Haussman.
A nice light, summery fragrance was on my mind, as I was feeling lighthearted. So I went into Printemps, the famed Paris department store.
Heading for the fragrance bar, I took a look at the perfume bottles on the shelves. The display was not very attractive, and there were no testers available for sampling.
After spending 10 minutes fingering the bottles, my face wore a distressed expression that said, "Help!" Still, no one came to my rescue.
Some of the sales staff were busy at the register taking care of customers' purchases, but the floor was not very crowded. I was extremely surprised that no salesperson had come up to me yet, and even more astonished to see a clerk crouching behind her cash register, drinking a cup of coffee.
She then changed shoes, applied lipstick and checked her hairdo. She was walking over to her colleague, apparently to complete an inventory, when I decided to intrude.
"Excuse me, Madame, could you please help me? I'm looking for a summer fragrance. Anything new?"
She looked at me blankly and said, "No, nothing new. [Calvin Klein's] Eternity just came in, that's all."
"Is there anything you would recommend that's light and fresh for the summer?" I insisted.
"You may want to try this, from Escada," she said producing a bottle that she sprayed on my wrist. She put the bottle back in the drawer, kept muttering, "no, same as last year," and began walking back to her inventory. I would not get anything out of her, that much was clear.
I admit, my lightheartedness was seriously damaged, and I wanted to be far away from this place.
I decided not to let the bad experience at Printemps wear me down and went to Silver Moon, a perfumery recommended by a friend of mine.
Silver Moon, a prestige perfumery chain, has nine stores in Paris and retails more than 90 brands. The store I picked is located in Les Halles.It was empty, and a young sales representative greeted me with a friendly smile as soon as I walked in, instantly offering assistance. I told her I was looking for a summer fragrance, and her first suggestion was L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake, which was displayed in the window.
However, I asked for something different. With a grin on her face, she said, "Eden from Cacharel is new, but it's not exactly a light and fresh fragrance for the summer. Or how about Angel from Mugler? Its scent has a fruity touch."
When I passed on her suggestions, she was resourceful and went on. "I like Tendre Poison from Dior. It's a light and nice fragrance for the summer."
She sprayed some on my wrist and patiently waited for me to stop sniffing it. Faced by my indecision, she tried to find out what I liked more precisely and remarked with a little note of discouragement, "Well, there is also Parfum d'EtÄ from Kenzo. It's a nice fragrance for the summer."
I sniffed a little more and thanked her. After taking the metro to the Champs Elysees, I walked into another Silver Moon store. It was after 6 p.m. and crowded. However, after a few minutes a clerk came up to me, offering her help in a cordial way.
There were testers available in front of each fragrance. After being asked my question of the day, she immediately suggested Parfum d'Ete from Kenzo. Then, Eau d'Orlane.
"It's perfect for the summer, light and very refreshing. A lot of women buy it. Would you like to try it?" she said.
She seemed very convinced it was the summer fragrance because she couldn't think of any other suggestions.
"Do you carry Sunflowers from Elizabeth Arden? Could I smell it?" I asked. "A friend told me about it; she says it's nice," I added hopefully.
From the look on her face, it seemed she did not agree with my friend, but she sprayed my wrist anyway. I liked it and remembered the previous store did not carry it.
"What if I get a body lotion instead, for instance?" I volunteered."It is a totally different thing. No, I would not recommend it because you will not get the sensation of freshness an eau de toilette or a light perfume will give you."
I thanked her. She was still holding the Eau d'Orlane when I left. I decided that was enough of walking, asking, spraying, sniffing and thanking for one day and went home to a hot bath.
The perfume and beauty department at Dickins & Jones was in a state of flux when I arrived on a search for summer fragrances, as was the entire store.
The Regent Street unit, part of the House of Fraser group, is undergoing a 3.5 million pound ($5 million) refurbishment and the beauty department was in chaos because it was being prepared for its Fragrance Regatta, a two-week promotional event during which selected items are sold for 20 pounds ($30), along with a free gift.
So half the department's assistants were standing on their counters decorating them, rather than serving customers from behind them. The initial impact was slightly off-putting, and the disruption appeared to affect the level of service.
When I eventually found an assistant at eye-level, she was in front of a counter promoting Christian Dior's new Tendre Poison.
She was almost too polite and reserved, and I had to ask her for a sample spray and about the scent. She described it as "completely different from Poison."
When I asked why it was called Tendre Poison then, she replied, "The name Poison is so famous, they felt Tendre Poison was a good idea. It's lighter and more floral than Poison. It's an ideal summer scent."
Considering she was promoting a new fragrance, I was surprised and slightly disappointed that she had neither spray cards nor samples.
"It's only been out for three weeks," she explained, and informed me, after I asked, that the bath and body products wouldn't be available at Dickins & Jones until August.
I moved on to an actual counter assistant, in the hope she would be able to guide me toward a summer scent.The fragrances on the counter included Escada, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey and the Kenzo range.
Knowing Escada's Ete en Provence was released specifically as a summer fragrance, I quizzed the assistant about it and also its predecessor.
"Do you have the Escada perfume with the blue bottle?" I asked, referring to last year's summer scent, Chiffon Sorbet. But she didn't know what I was talking about.
She described Ete en Provence as "light and summery," but didn't go into any more detail about it. I was surprised she didn't explain its limited availability, since this might have persuaded me to buy as soon as possible.
She told me the 30-ml size costs 19.50 pounds ($29) and the 50-ml 24.95 pounds ($37), but she didn't know whether there would be any bath or body products available.
"There are lotions, soap and gels in L'Eau d'Issey," she enthused. "It's a lovely light fragrance for summer. And have you smelled this one?" she asked, pointing to Jean Paul Gaultier. "That's very light and summery, too."
But she didn't recommend Kenzo's Parfum d'Ete, which was also on her counter. I said she was lucky to have so many different fragrances. She confided, "To tell you the truth, I'm surrounded by perfumes all the time and I can't tell the difference. I haven't been working in this department for very long."
Despite her lack of knowledge, the assistant was one of the friendliest and most helpful I spoke with. She was slightly older than the others and was the only one who gave me samples -- L'Eau d'Issey and Jean Paul Gaultier.
I would gladly have bought one of the fragrances from her, because she was so friendly and she wasn't pushy.
I then noticed that the promotional display for Elizabeth Arden's new Sunflowers was extremely complete, with information cards, testers and spray cards.
I explained to the assistant at the Arden counter that while the Sunflowers fragrance was ideal for summer, it was a little too sweet for me and asked if she could recommend any other products.She immediately became defensive about Sunflowers. "The initial fragrance is of peach and melon, so it does have very sweet top notes. But it does fade down to bergamot and musk after a while."
Realizing I wasn't convinced, she suggested Eau Fraiche and BlueGrass.
"They are much sharper fragrances," she said. "Eau Fraiche doesn't have a bath and body range, but it can be used all over the body. It's quite good value for the money at 18 pounds ($27) for 100 ml."
I left Dickins & Jones feeling the assistants could have been more enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their products, including the availability of bath and body lines.
Obviously, selling fragrances, even when there's a regatta on, isn't all easy sailing. Maybe the assistants had their minds more on the decorations than the customers.
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